George Russell ‘Four Classic Albums’ 2CD (Avid Jazz) 5/5

A highly original composer and arranger whose music always possessed an unpredictability, George Russell offered music that still sounds on the edge some sixty years later. While some of his most popular pieces are not featured here such as ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and ‘Ezz-Thetics’, this is still essential music, and the major bonus is the inclusion of two extremely rare Decca albums, with the other two fine examples of his Riverside output. Only ‘The Outer View’ and ‘Ezz-Thetics’ are absent here and they would make up a fine second quartet of his albums for the future.

To begin with, ‘Jazz In The Space Age’ has a cover that could proudly grace a Sun Ra album, and the music is suitably futuristic in tone. Russell will remain immortal in jazz for his pioneering work of creating the Lydian Chromatic Conception and on this 1960 album, he pioneers the three-part ‘Chromatic Universe’ while elsewhere ‘The Lydiot’ and ‘Waltz From Outer Space’ are refreshing in their avant-garde approach, yet still accessible. A large ensemble features both Bill Evans and Paul Bley on piano, Hal McCusick on alto saxophone, Milt Hinton on bass and Barry Galbraith on guitar. George Russell had been taking in music in the basement of one Gil Evans (along with MIles Davis and others) when he moved to New York in 1960, and by 1961 was experimenting with a smaller sextet on ‘George Russell Sextet In K.C.’. An all-original set features long-time alumni Don Ellis on trumpet, plus Chuck Israels on bass. For the second CD, both Riverside albums are paired and these still make for a challenging, yet highly enjoyable listening experience. On the former, ‘Stratusphunk’, dating from 1960, the title track and ‘Things New’ sound thoroughly modern, just like the evocative and colourful modern art album front cover. An early Carla Bley composition, ‘Bent Eagle’, was a sign that Russell was listening intently to what was new and innovative on the jazz scene, and his music remained on the margins of orthodoxy throughout his career. Two years later, ‘The stratus seekers’ was issued and is a continuation of previously, only this time an added tenor saxophone to make up a new septet. Futuristic considerations are highlighted here on ‘Blues In Orbit’.

Last, but by no means least, the quality of the music is matched here by the sheer quantity, both CD’s cramming to the absolute maximum and then some of eighty-one minutes. In the 1960’s, George Russell would fine further fame and exploration in a new sextet that featured major names from Don Ellis and the late great Eric Dolphy, as well as a young bassist of immense talent in Steve Swallow.

Tim Stenhouse