41. Home team, new game

La Folia: The Roccella Variations. From George Russell Living Time Orchestra, The London Concert, 1989

One of the late John Cumming’s many good deeds was bringing George Russell over from the US to play with a mixed Anglo-American band, originally for the Arts Council’s Contemporary Music Network. The first such effort, in 1986 when the great man was in his early 60s, led to a series of big band tours of the UK and Europe.

There are several other recordings, including the 80th Birthday concert in London – which features many of the same players and benefits from the addition of Mike Walker on guitar. I know I heard these bands, once, maybe twice, in London, but weirdly can’t recall exactly where or when. I and my concert companion do both recall Russell dancing, though, so we reckon we were definitely there!

Anyhow, I wasn’t around for this live recording, at Ronnie Scott’s (with some overdubs, Duncan Heining’s recently reissued and immensely worthwhile biography informs, to ensure a decent sound balance). But it’s a great document. The Brits – Ian Carr, Andy Sheppard, Pete Hurt, Chris Biscoe, Ashley Slater, Steve Lodder et al, all rose brilliantly to the challenge of Russell’s music. And it was challenging, but also immensely satisfying. I’d pigeonholed him a bit foolishly as a theoretician – one who had a harmonic system all his own albeit one that, unlike Ornette Coleman’s, actually made sense to other people (just about) when he explained it. It went well beyond my musical understanding, though, and I hadn’t listened to much beyond the early recordings, especially those with Don Cherry.

The later big bands, though, when one got round to them, were a revelation. In keeping with the times, by the 1980s he added to the endlessly inventive scoring for harmony a deep interest in rhythm. Both were combined in a usually many-layered music, which magically managed to manifest as both some of the most tightly organised and arranged pieces anyone tried to bring off on a jazz stage, while always swinging infectiously.

Less swinging at the start of this piece, which isn’t like any of the others on the set (Russell was a genius at that, too). It begins sounding like a lost, luminous, baroque fragment, before flipping into more contemporary mode and offering fine solos from Sheppard and Ian Carr. There are other excellent renditions of better known pieces here – a version of Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature that commences with a rap(!) from the composer, and the marvellous arrangement of So What that orchestrates Miles’ original solo. But this one, only recorded the once I think, is a great way in – to the record, and to late Russell in general. I’ve been listening to him a lot this year, prompted by Duncan’s book, and this is as good as it got.

It all amplifies my feeling that those last decades of the century were an extraordinarily fortunate time to explore this music. I started out thinking that big bands were a bit of a relic, playing swing numbers with the occasional bit of bebop that came across as a bit stiff. By the time I’d heard the bands of Gil Evans, Westbrook, Carla Bley, Mike Gibbs, and (later) Loose Tubes and Sam Rivers’ band, it was clear they were vehicles for some of the greatest music it is possible to make. Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue reinforce that opinion every year. But Russell is a huge contributor to that evolving tradition, and these European visits allowed us to hear him at his best.

Why the No 41? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify

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