George Russell: Ezz-thetics (1961) Riverside UK

Selection: Nardis (Miles Davis)

 

.  .  .

The instantly identifiable Davis composition given the Russell/ Dolphy treatment

Artists

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

Music

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.

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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.

Vinyl:

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.

Collectors Corner

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) .

Marc Janssen warehouse

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.

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17 thoughts on “George Russell: Ezz-thetics (1961) Riverside UK

  1. Ah, no belt to change. I own three old direct drive model , Tecnichs sp15, Micro Seiki and One old Denon dp5000. So no dramatic improovment are possible for me. Maybe changing felt or vinyl or Copper Mat….

  2. I am an alumni of your photography class, ‘s all. I have my my own tweaks here and there, but your manual was definitely of great help – credit where credit is due!

  3. Eric Dolphy is such an intriguing figure in the story of modern jazz. I have most if not all of his albums, and I would venture to say that he is almost always better on other peoples albums than his own. Out to Lunch was the first Blue Note I ever bought, and I still find it dense and slightly unfriendly, yet on this Russell, all those Mingus albums and with Coltrane, he raises the levels of the albums like a sprinkle of magic.

  4. thanks to you and despite the reissue fad, the price of old strata – already bleeding – will fetch new highs . that all i’ll hold against you, as your writing mixes music, wine and audiophile paraphernalia with taste and fun, as always.
    the magic of dolphy is midas-like and finds its voice in russell’s esthetics to create another classic.

  5. A classic. I often wonder what this album might’ve been like had Bill Dixon joined Russell’s group instead of Don Ellis (which apparently almost happened).

  6. Andrew, yours is definitely an English version. My Dutch Interdisc pressing says ‘made in Holland’ on the labels and has the black slick print not unlike the US version, pictures of the musicians included.

  7. 50’s and 60’s Russell’s records are worth listening.
    there are 4 on Decca and 4 on Riverside but The Jazz Workshop on Victor is my best loved.
    rubber belts: I have got a pair for my Michell Gyrodec still in plastic. I presume it’s a new pair, I’ll try and see if my ears are sensible as yours.

  8. Great record which I’ve loved since I first heard it in the sixties. I had a Riverside version, as I remember. Classic Dolphy. Thanks for a fascinating write-up, agree about the weird fonts.

  9. as someone with a modest amount of musical training, i find russell’s ideas impossible to reconcile with what I know. it doesn’t seem to have any meaning beyond taking what is already known and putting weird pictures in place of the explanations. but i think that’s just me not getting it, really. i do love his music.

  10. Of GR’s 50s and 60s recordings I think I have RCA Victor Jazz Workshop; Stratusphunk; Jazz in the Space Age; Ezz-Thetics; The Stratus Seekers; and At Beethoven Hall. I think all of mine are InterDisc issues and Ezz-Thetics was the first one I bought, I believe.

    All are marvellous and essential. When Dolphy enters on NARDIS it is still a spine-tingling and surprising moment.

    BTW: is it some glitch with my browser or does this post use a weird mixture of serif and sans serif fonts?

    Enjoy your new rubber bands, LJC.

    • Hi Alun
      Wordpress gets more and more eccentric in its management of formatting. If you copy a couple of words from an Internet source, it imports all the associated formatting, in conflict with the rest of the text. Haywire! Mostly I remove all rogue formatting before publishing, but no doubt I missed a few.

      UPDATE: I’ve had a second look and by Jove you are right – the fonts are mixing styles like crazy – serif and sans-serif faces – and it makes my eyes hurt. I know, think like Microsoft: It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. II’ll tidy it up when I have a mo.

      • It’s a tedious non-jazz topic, I know, but you may find it helpful to keep a simple plain text editor on your desktop (I use TextEdit for Mac or Apple’s own Notepad). Anything I want to copy and paste into a blog, a Word document, an email, or indeed anything else I paste first into Notepad and then copy and paste from that – secure in the knowledge that all formatting has been removed. It sounds a faff but it saves me hours…

        OK — boring tech topic over for the day.

  11. I was mounting a new cartridge the other day and while rummaging through my turntable spare bits box, found a new belt that I had ordered as a backup some years ago for my Sota Sapphire turntable. It occurred to me that it has been 3-4 years since I changed the belt, so decided to pop on the new one. (Only takes about 30 seconds with the Sota.) Like your, I was amazed at how much better the sound was: more focused, better pace, better dynamics, better everything. Out of curiosity, I took off the new belt and compared it to the old one. Doubled and laying flat side by side, the old belt was about two inches longer than the new one, meaning that over the last 3-4 years the old belt had gradually stretched about four inches in circumference. Wow! No wonder the new belt brought such a change for the better. It’s an easy fix that will yield immediate results.

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