George Russell: “Arranger” – RCA, Decca, and Riverside years (1957-63)

LondonJazzBeachcomber has been out with the reissue quality detector again. This time he has found some early 60’s Riverside recordings repackaged by ABC Records, new owner of Riverside after Orpheum, in 1969, cheap as chips.  ABC merged a selection from several titles into one, gave it a new cover and title, a luxurious stereo presentation, resulting in something sounding much better than I expected.

But, as usual, the story doesn’t stop here, just a jumping off point for further exploration…in jazz… and Space…  there is a seat free, climb in, great to have you on board,  buckle up: Houston, we have lift off

Selection: Nardis (Miles Davis)


This vintage vinyl compilation of pianist/composer/arranger George Russell’s 1960s Riverside recordings includes a side of  Eric Dolphy, here on exquisite bass clarinet, instrument of the devil, and the fine Don Ellis on trumpet. The Miles composition Nardis get an dreamy ethereal treatment that showcases Russell’s arranging skills, expanding, interpreting and elevating Miles composition onto a bigger canvas altogether. Listen for Russell’s directional clues and infills on piano: masterful, commanding, restrained, precise.

Artists : Russell Riverside recordings –

RLP 341 Stratusphunk: Alan Kiger (trumpet) Dave Baker (trombone) Dave Young (tenor sax) George Russell (piano) Chuck Israels (bass) Joe Hunt (drums)NYC, October 18, 1960

RLP 375  Ezz-thetics (selection – Nardis) :  Don Ellis (trumpet) Dave Baker (trombone) Eric Dolphy (alto sax, bass clarinet) George Russell (piano) Stephen Swallow (bass) Joe Hunt (drums) Plaza Sound Studios, NYC, May 8, 1961 recording engineer Ray Fowler.

RLP 417  The Stratus Seekers: Don Ellis (trumpet) Dave Baker (trombone) John Pierce (alto sax) Paul Plummer (tenor sax) George Russell (piano) Stephen Swallow (bass) Joe Hunt (drums) Plaza Sound Studios, NYC, January 31, 1962 recording engineer Ray Fowler.

RLP 440 The Outer View: Don Ellis (trumpet) Garnett Brown (trombone) Paul Plummer (tenor sax) George Russell (piano) Steve Swallow (bass) Pete La Roca (drums) Sheila Jordan (vocals) recorded Plaza Sound Studios, NYC, August 27, 1962

Music: The Lone Arranger

Skill in mixing disparate ingredients has long had a certain status, be it Club DJs mixing beats, or Cocktail Mixicologists mixing booze. Back in the ’60s, that status fell on an Arranger. I own up, until now I hadn’t fully grasped the difference between a band leader (in effect, a circus ringmaster) and an arranger ( a painter with a palette of musicians). Arranger, formal definition:  “the art of preparing and adapting an already written composition for presentation in other than its original form… including re-harmonization, paraphrasing, and/or development of a composition, so that it fully represents the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic structure“.

Arrangers that stand out  in the jazz field, though some were also band leaders,  include Marty Paitch, Neal Hefti, Gill Evans, Tad Dameron, Oliver Nelson, and George Russell. I admit I am not a fan of volumetric “big band” – the minute I see a line-up with of three of every instrument, sometimes five, employment stimulus for musicians, shouty cacophony, that’s me off.

Whilst an excellent pianist and an inventive composer, arguably Russell’s greatest talent was the crafting of complex musical structures, often a reinvention of classic jazz compositions, on a hugely bigger tonal, rhythmic and harmonic canvas. In this process he exploited, and in some areas led, the growing freedom of new directions in jazz.

At the end of the ’50s and early ’60s some jazz musicians were challenging the creative straight-jacket of “chords”. Having improvised for decades over chord changes, a new spaciousness was discovered by replacing chord progressions with modes and scales. A  modal composition emphasized  linear modes like melody, rather than vertical chordal ones. The musician then had at his disposal a near limitless choice of notes, not just those in the key signature or chord in the progression. Melodic ideas achieved autonomy, independent of any harmonic progression. Russell and others proceeded to re-arrange the traditional conventions of  jazz, though possibly leaving some of the audience behind.

Though his structures were strictly composed, Russell also created improvisational space for his exquisite roster of  jazz musicians. The George Russell Sextet, Septet, Small-tet, and Orchestra featured an eye-watering roll-call of new and not so new  talent, including Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Phil Woods, Bob Brookmeyer, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Art Farmer, Don Ellis, Steve Swallow, Chuck Israels, Paul Motian, and Don Cherry, to name a few. Name anyone else with a line-up like that?  Record labels which hosted George Russell recordings (The Russell name largely unknown outside the jazz cognoscenti), found they had much hotter property on their hands, names  quickly added to LP  covers: George Russell with Bill Evans! George Russell featuring Eric Dolphy!

Sun Ra no longer had a monopoly of Space Travel theatre.  George Russell offered genuinely new music –  Jazz For The Space Age.

Vinyl: RS 3043 ABC re-issue/compilation (1969)

The complexity of Russell’s arrangements seemed a natural for stereo presentation, but  having reservations about Riverside US manufacturing and question-marks over early stereo engineering, I hesitated to seek out US stereo editions – until this  curious repackaging of Russell’s work presented itself.

Generally, I do not recommend the 1968-71 ABC Records Riverside reissues (black label red-brown ring, prominent italic-R logo)  as they can be indifferently re-mastered and sonically lightweight . Generally, that is, but this little baby seemed to be somewhat of an exception. Always challenge your assumptions, see if they are still the friend they purport to be..

Re-recording engineer Jimmy Czak, pressing Bell Sound, mastering engineer Sam Feldman (sf)

The stamp in the runout goes unmentioned in the credits – Bell Sound, and the initials “sf”,  Sam Feldman. Mr Feldman thought enough of his own work to initial it, in the manner of Van Gelder.

Bell Sound was considered state of the art in their day, with big name labels using their services.  Among their mastering engineers was Sam Feldman, whose  discography includes many of the late-60s Rolling Stones cuts for US London Records ($$$$!) and Beatles cuts for Apple ($$$$!), so a trusted pair of hands, and credits  for a number of titles for  ABC Records, owners of Riverside at the time. The all-important mastering engineer got no credit on the cover, so resorted to carving his initials on the vinyl itself, makes perfect sense.

GO COMPARE:

Time to get out the headphones, see what you make of  ABC Records 1969 stereo  reissue engineering compared with a mono Philips 1963  pressing for the original UK release, same track, Nardis.

I happen to have it, so why not?

Selection: Nardis (Miles Davis) mono Philips (UK 1962)


Previous ABC Stereo remastered (US 1969)

Vinyl: RLP 375 UK Riverside Interdisc, UK Philips pressing, mono.

I thought it strange that ’60s UK Riverside Interdisc issues were almost exclusively mono, perhaps not an artistic choice but commercial judgement. Perhaps British record-buyers at that time were some way  behind their US counterparts in the move to stereo equipment,  mostly still with mono record players. UK Philips had no commercial reason to push the boundaries, or perhaps they didn’t much like what they heard on early stereo tapes!

LJC Thinks (Ed: “LJC thinks”? An oxymoron, surely)

Both the first UK Riverside issue and the US ABC Records reissue are, in one way, on a level playing field: both re-mastered from copy tape, at least one generation removed from the original tape.

In making the rip I couldn’t help notice a huge difference in gain (effectively volume), between the two – though I have pushed it up on the quiet British mono to make the dynamic range equivalent. I recommend compensating for any playback difference in loudness – one is not sonically better because it is louder,  the volume switch can sort that.

We have mono vs. stereo, and we have The Special Relationship at stake – British vs American engineers.  My question is:  is one is more musically satisfying than the other?  Careful, we can always send the Redcoats back, and they have bigger muskets today. My own opinion, they are both a convincing presentation that leaves you focussed on the music.

COLLECTOR’S CORNER

George Russell’s “debut” Jazz Workshop (RCA Victor 1957)  earned the soubriquet “one of the most important albums since 1949-50” from Nat Hentoff.  “Most important” is usually a warning: “important”, not necessarily likeable or popular. I recall picking up that album in Notting Hill’s long-disappeared Intoxica,  struggling for several minutes with Hentoff’s testimonial, thinking…1949-50, that’s quite old… before  returning it to the rack. I wasn’t quite ready for it then. Now, it is magic: Bill Evans  percussive glittering inventions, Hal McKusick’s flowing alto figures, Art Farmer’s probing trumpet lines, all weaving in and out of a restless canvas of stop-start tempos and abruptly changing melodic ideas.

This more recent and better informed encounter with George Russell’s work has made me take stock of some of his other recordings leading up to this time.  Though many of these works were issued in stereo, the paucity of stereo auction copies found is a useful reminder that the market for stereo at this time was still in its infancy.

Ever up for a challenge, I have pieced together a  visual discography of Russell’s more accessible RCA, Decca and Riverside titles, in stereo. Beyond this point , his further evolution is perhaps for another day, wandering into free and avant territory.

Russell must have been an interesting challenge for the graphic designer. I guess “arranging” isn’t especially physical like playing an instrument, and a sheaf of musical notation papers is not the best prop for an album cover, so we have Russell staring impassively at us, to camera, or the musical territory finds its analogy in abstract art.

 

George Russell 1957 – 1963

Anything more you would like to add, the floor is yours. What do you make of Russell?  The Riverside recordings?   Do you sync with Russell’s cerebral new direction, or are you more soul jazz and boogaloo at heart? Mono vs Stereo? UK vs US? Man up, take the stand. Where else?

LJC

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20 thoughts on “George Russell: “Arranger” – RCA, Decca, and Riverside years (1957-63)

  1. Fave George Russell LP of the six or 8 I’ve owned is The RCA Jazz Workshop. Unlike any of the others I’m familiar with the compositions are relatively short and to the point. Russell’s Lydian stuff was well traveled, through the Space Age and beyond. In this case it’s fun to get out there faster, over and over and out with a whopping twelve tunes.

  2. I was recently introduced to George Russell by taking a deep dive ‘with Don Ellis’….so I started searching for great copies of Ezz-thetics. Along the way I happened into Stratus-phunk. They both have turned into some of my favorites. I passed on a VG++ OG mono of Ezzthetics, for a NM Japanese reissue of it. The sonics are excellent, so I can’t really feel bad about not having the OG. I also came across 90’s reissue of Stratus-phunk (OJC – I believe LJC has the picture of it, at the top) for cheeep…also sonically excellent. HOWEVER – I don’t really have anything to go by. Has anyone compared, for example, a Japanese reissue to a US Riverside pressing – or an OJC to a US Riverside?

  3. I must admit I have no George Russell in my collection and only ran across his name when seeking out albums that had Eric Dolphy on them. Time once again to dig a little deeper.

  4. I actually enjoy the Scandinavian fusion-y stuff. His scope got wider with time.

    For what it’s worth The Outer View was also issued as part of the Dutch Fontana new jazz series with a Marte Röling-designed cover. Rod Levitt’s Riverside LP was part of that series as well.

  5. I came across a very interesting U.S. Decca album entitled “Cross Section – Saxes” issued under the name of Hal McKusick, with contributions by i.a. George Russell. George arranges You are my Thrill, Stratusphunk and End of a love Affair. Brilliant execution by Hal, Art Farmer, Bill Evans plus rhythm. Btw, Bill Evans is on all the ten tracks of the album. I am amazed by the top audio qualities of this Decca pressing on styrene, I believe.

      • mine is identical to yours. I put a question mark. It is not vinyl, it is inflexible. You are right Transitions have another feel. These Corals have a tremendous sound.

    • “Cross Section” also includes a fine Clifford Brown original, “La Rue” (aka “Larue”). I prefer this version to the ballad version on “Carl’s Blues” by the Curtis Counce Group (Contemporary 7574), mainly because it states the melody and its beautiful closing phrase in a more “palpable” way. Though somewhat popular among musicians, the tune was never recorded by Clifford himself, in my knowledge. I’d be grateful for anyone to correct me!

      • For the information of those who follow at a distance: the score for Larue was by George Handy. I think you are right that the tune was never recorded by Clifford himself. I double-checked in Catalano’s Clifford Brown.

  6. I happened upon the New York, N.Y. recording in its re-release on Impulse incarnation (1998) a couple of years ago. It is most interesting, featuring John Coltrane and Bill Evans as part of an impressive big band. The disc offers a soundscape which evokes nostalgic glimpses of an imagined New York as the 1950s ended and the 60s began. It is filed in the section of my collection categorised as unusual but listenable (well actually it is in a box with some of my other CDs on Impulse). I even like the poetic narrative from John Hendricks which predates the spirit of LJC’s ‘Man up. Take a stand’ with its: ‘Think you can lick it, get to the wicket. Buy you a ticket. Go!’ A worthwhile purchase if seen.

  7. George Russell has always been one of my favorite musicians. I discovered him in the mid 60s so I was able to get all four Riverside originals (in mono because stereo was $1 more). I followed him (musically) to Norway and Sweden as he expanded his use of electronics and by extension electric instruments and was thrilled to see him live at the Village Vanguard fronting a big band on Monday nights. The 1st set was always his older stuff while the 2nd was more contemporary things.
    Although I have everything he’s ever put to vinyl, I must admit to being less than enthusiastic about some of the later day issues featuring long solos and electric bass ostinato figures throughout. For me, his last great record was Live @ Beethoven Hall (MPS/BASF) with Don Cherry. I think that was his last purely acoustic album.
    I really enjoyed your note about Bell Sound. I’ve a few of their British invasion things and always wondered about them.
    One small correction. Although he and Mingus are listed together on the Modern Jazz Concert album, they did not ever record together. They appear on separate tracks. One last thing, circulating on the internet is a recording of his set at Newport from 1964 featuring Thad Jones and John Gilmore!

  8. My favorites:

    New York, NY – Decca mono
    Jazz in the Space Age – Decca stereo

    The brush attack on the intro of Manhattan.

  9. My first encounter with George Russell was via his N.Y. N.Y. album.
    I had a gorgeous German Brunswick pressing by D.G.G, but in mono, which I traded in for a US Decca stereo version. The record is fabulous for Bill Evans and interesting for Trane’s contribution, strolling on Milt Hinton’s bass. Great Farmer and Brookmeyer too.
    I am only recently re-discovering “Jazz in the Space Age”, which I think is even superior to NY/NY. Space Age is more consequent in its approach. dig Bill Evans and Paul Bley!
    Important note: both albums I have have a cut-out hole pinched in the jacket. They may have had low sales.

  10. I’ve always enjoyed George Russell’s music(I have 16 of his LPs!) although some of his recordings haven’t worn too well in my opinion.The 2 Flying Dutchmans(Othello and Electronic Sonata)spring to mind!
    I once saw a quote, by Russell himself I think,describing his music as”from the cotton fields to the cosmos”.Kind of sums it up nicely!

  11. one of my first loves. I’ve got them all, even the two versions of The Jazz Workshop. anyone missing this? rush to grab one, it’s really essential.

  12. There’s a reissue of “Jazz Workshop” on French RCA that they helpfully retitled “Ezz-thetic”. Not sure if they also reissued “Ezz-thetic” as “Jazz Workshop”.

  13. There are times when I love George Russell. “Nardis” is a good example. Love the reharmonization (or whatever you wish to call it), making a new song from the old. Very refreshing! Then there are times when he’s too far out for me. I found the American vinyl of Ezz-thetics or The Stratus Seekers to be more alive and dynamic than my CD of The Jazz Workshop (Koch Jazz KOC-CD 7850 – BMG special products), which is quite compressed and flat. Stratusphunk vinyl is a little less alive than Ezz or Stratus, at least to my ears. OK, not an exact comparison, but it’s the best I can do.

  14. My experience with George Russell started with Ezz-thetics and went to his more modern fare on none other than the Flying Dutchman label. Titles such as “The Esoteric Circle” and “Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved By Nature” (this outrageous title competes with the best of Sun Ra). This is wonderfully innovative music that never ceases to amaze with repeated listening. They included several musicians that went on to be central figures at the ECM label (Jan Garbarek, Jon Christensen, Terje Rypdao, Ariel Anderson).

  15. instrument of the devil? for shame! i adore the bass clarinet. but perhaps you were being sarcastic?


    Of course. Bass clarinet is devilish in a good way!
    LJC

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