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.
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!
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.
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?