Selection: Nardis (Miles Davis)
. . .
The instantly identifiable Davis composition given the Russell/ Dolphy treatment
Don Ellis, trumpet; Dave Baker, trombone; Eric Dolphy, alto sax, bass clarinet; George Russell, piano; Stephen Swallow, bass; Joe Hunt, drums, recorded Plaza Sound Studios, NYC, May 8, 1961
George Russell, jazz piano performer/ composer/ arranger, musical theorist. His output is great (except, of course, when it isn’t to my taste). Ezz-thetics is typical of George Russell Sextet early Sixties works, along with Stratusphunk, and Stratus Seekers. Novel melodic construction, unexpected twists and turns with avant-garde undercurrents, an artful musical canvas, orchestrated with a palette of contrasting instruments. Russell’s comping piano briefly buoys up the rhythm only to fade away as the work takes a different direction, which it does frequently, hold tight.
Russell has complexity which is exciting., but the real bonus here is the presence of Eric Dolphy: bass clarinet unleashed, wild and outrageous, and great. Ezz-thetics also introduces the first recording of bassist Steve Swallow.
Of all Russell’s many albums, Ezz-thetics scores the highest critical rating, earning the maximum five stars from both Allmusic and Users. Many of Russell’s later titles scrape three stars from Allmusic, and only slightly better stars among Users. Perhaps it’s one of those Marmite things.
Russel’s Fifties output arrived as intellectual innovative big band: Jazz Workshop, Jazz In The Space Age, inspired choice of the young Bill Evans seated at the piano stool. In his later works, Russell seems carried away by his own giant musical intellect, evolving the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.
Here for completeness is the map of Lydian Tonal Gravity. No, me neither. Does gravity get you down? As the Earth spins, why we are not spinning off into space? Gravity. I was going to take this opportunity to verse myself in this musical theory and show off my new-found insight, but the more I read the less I understood.
A chromatic scale is “simply” 12 notes, moving in minor 2nds, through an octave. An octave is an interval whose higher note has a sound-wave frequency of vibration twice that of its lower note. Thus an A above middle C vibrates at 440 hertz; the octave above this A vibrates at 880 hertz. Now I thought hertz was something to do with car rental, but it lost me at minor seconds. Note factory rejects? An octave is poorly named, not like the eight musicians in an octet, but due to those pesky minor seconds it takes twelve intervals to arrive at the same note at twice the frequency in Hertz. Holy Collision Damage Waiver, I’ve got it! Well no, I haven’t, actually. In fact I don’t want it, it’s not helping. Perhaps there is some truth in the “wag” who once opined that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds”.
I was glad to retreat from the musical theory of Lydian Tonal Gravity to simply listen to the music. You don’t have to know anything about the theory of Music to enjoy it, any more than you have to know how wine is made in order to enjoy a glass. Stainless steel tanks, calcareous limestone soil, 10% in new oak barrels… Any theory is less important than the answer to the right question: yes, but how do I use it? Russell’s Lydian concept influenced Miles Davis in exploring and developing modal improvisation and hence the pathway to the seminal recording of 1959, “Kind of Blue.” I guess it was put to good use.
I persevered with Russell titles, acquiring some of his other ’60s and later albums, but found I wasn’t often in the mood for more demanding listening. Perhaps too much 70’s Strata East spiritual jazz in my musical diet has shifted my tastes in different directions. Russell’s final album for Riverside, The Outer View (1962), sits firmly on the outside, as its’ title suggests, and though I bought it (expensive!), I struggle to warm to it.
Russell broke up his early combo, moving first in 1965 to the German MPS label with At Beethoven Hall and then to the improbably-named Italian label Soul Note. Between 1967 and 1983, Soul Note released around eight Russell albums, including several critically acclaimed large band recordings with a variety of mainly European musicians. His New York Big Band titles like Live In An American Time Spiral (1983) become increasingly inaccessible to my ear, apparently a reverse-fusion between avant-garde and rock.
That last title joined my “Condemned Shelf”, where most of my Cecil Taylor albums sit. Records here are on Musical Death Row, but sentence under appeal. Periodically they are given a trip to the turntable and the opportunity of rehabilitation. A few are released, mostly they are returned to The Shelf to await their fate.
Also on this Condemned Shelf sit my most disappointing vinyl pressings: bootleg-quality recordings, radio-quality recordings, records cut from obviously digital sources, records suffering Engineering Blight – high-end frequencies rolled off “because you can’t hear anything over x Hz”) , recordings with bass boosted for the benefit of the earbud-listening, and those pressed with recycled vinyl to the point of unacceptable intrusion. And then there are those I just don’t like very much, for whatever reason. They get the “Try Again Later” treatment.
Interdisc European release, pressed by Phillips, randomly in the Netherlands or outer North East London, Chingford. This copy has a little surface noise, in case you wanted to point that out.
After an afternoon trawling for records, not very successfully it must be said (see comment below on Strata East reissues), I retreated for consolation to my favourite wine store, Hedonism, in the heart of Mayfair’ Hedge Fund ghetto. Streets here are parked-out with high-end luxury sports cars which, though hideously expensive, cost less than their vanity personalised number plates. In store I met two American winemakers who invited me to sample their promotion, a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir, grown at high altitude in New-Age Central, Oregon, USA.
Unlike the, like, easy-to-like staple fare of Californian wine exports, these Oregon beauties tasted, well, European. Unfortunately, the bottle price ran to over three times my house limit. Nice wine but Blue Note prices! Except, after playing a Blue Note, you can play it again, and again, and again, whilst the bottle of Oregon Chardonay is…Ore-gone.
Or a brighter note, the biggest improvement in hi-fi sound in a long time arrived just last week, in the shape of two rubber bands.
You may think £100 ($125) is a lot to pay for two rubber bands. And you might be right. The bands which rotate my Avid platter are a carefully matched pair manufactured to very exacting tolerances. And they are custom made, uniquely model specific, so they have you over a barrel, so to speak. Fortunately you don’t have to dismantle the entire turntable to fit the belts, as illustrated here:
Nevertheless, you have to fit the belts under the platter, requiring you to first lift it off the precision-engineered main bearing (pictured above, surrounded by the belts). The platter/bearing tolerances are necessarily very tight microns apart, and the platter lifts off the bearing only by gently rocking it left/right/up/down, while a couple of strong lads hold down the three suspension legs down in order to hold the assembly rigid.
After a couple of attempts, during which the bands pinged off, the belts were replaced, thanks to the invaluable assistance of my hi-fi guru, Man-in-a-Shed and hi-fi co-conspirator, Mr Speaker! Finally everything was in place. A suitable Blue Note was mounted on the deck whilst the belt assembly team retired to the sofa with a bottle of Provence rose, pulling the cork of which was, in comparison, a piece of cake.
The result? Extraordinary! Dramatic sonic improvement. Audio imagery snapped into precise focus, spine-tingling, freshness, and profound depth of musicality. The cost may be a lot for a couple of rubber bands, but that cost is absolutely insignificant compared with the results.
It was two years since the previous belts were fitted. Spinning that heavy platter over two years had taken its toll, stretching the belts and causing them to lose their required firmness of grip. Because the stretching process is very gradual, it is unlikely you would hear that the belts need replacing. When you do replace them however, the improvement in sound quality is quite shocking. Another positive is that your entire record collection will have new life breathed into it. Go listen to some old favourites with new ears.
Strata East reissues
As an aside, I have seen a rash of Strata East reissues coming into record stores recently, all properly licensed from whoever owns the Strata East catalogue. I ventured one issued by The Everland Music Group, who are based in the Netherlands with links to Austria and Germany. Everland – Marc Jannsen – claim their label aims to be “The Funkiest Label in the World” (see Discogs blog on this Dutch record collector, interesting, or possibly a warning where a record collecting obssesion can lead) .
Janssen is apparently an expert on licensing, which would explain the Strata East reissue rights. Sadly, the rights to issue a recording are not the same thing as access to the original source recordings, and my Everland Strata East Charlie Rouse title “Two Is One” (1974) turned out to be a real dud. I expect the same quality with the similar batch of Strata East reissues by British reissue label Pure Pleasure, just guessing. Japan also recently had a lot of Strata East material reissued. Someone’s been busy on the business side, but they seems no-one has any insight into the audio engineering process. Perhaps they hope no-one will notice. Perhaps no-one else does, apart from me.
My advice is keep looking for 70s originals, which sound fresh and dynamic. These modern reissues sound nothing like the real thing. After changing some rubber bands, they actually sound worse. The down side of improving hi-fi is that while good recordings sound even better, but bad transfers have nowhere to hide: they mostly sound worse. A couple of other experimental purchase of modern reissues yielded the same disappointing result.
I’m going to have to find a little extra room on a certain shelf.