The Futuristic Jazz of George Russell

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I recently pulled out an old LP in my collection by George Russell called Jazz in the Space Age, recorded in New York for Decca in 1960. It still sounds as fresh and as far out as it did the first time I put the needle down on it. Just the right amount of far out, I might add. 

Russell was a musical futurist. Though not as well-known as Ornette Coleman or Sun Ra, he was just as influential. For one thing, Russell authored a jazz musical theory book called the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, a work that attained biblical status among a new generation of jazz musicians. It is based on playing a C scale from the 4th degree, which is F, using all white notes on the keyboard. It gives music a unique sound and balance between tonality and dissonance. John Coltrane studied it, and so did John Lewis plus many others.

I bought my copy of Jazz in the Space Age in Paris in 1970 for 8.50 Fr (about $1.50) from a kiosk on the Boulevard St. Michel in the Latin Quarter. I played it on a battery-operated record player that I had picked up in Iceland while en route from the U.S. to France on Icelandic Airlines. My cheap flight required a layover in Reykjavík—presumably to encourage tourists to explore the unusual topography or to buy stuff in the airport shop. I bought the record player during the stop, and then we flew on to Luxembourg, from where I then survived a perilous bus trip to Paris. A late-night road race had dislodged a large rock, which flew through the bus windshield and inflicted a nasty head wound to the driver. It was a cold January night, with snow drifting into the bus from the shattered windshield. The driver pulled out a bottle of brandy, and fortified by the liquid courage, he finished the drive to the City of Light. We all cheered the driver when we arrived in Paris. But I digress.

 I bought three other albums from that kiosk for my stay in Paris (to study at the Sorbonne)— Miles Davis’s Miles Ahead, Respighi’s Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome, and a third that I can’t remember. I played these albums constantly in my small hotel room in the Hotel de la Reine Blanche on the Rue Boutebrie, close to the medieval Musée de Cluny. Listening to Russell’s album again after all these years has a Proustian effect, but instead of the madeleine in the tea, it conjures up my memories of living in Paris. I recall being thrown in jail for just being near a demonstration I didn’t even know about, savoring sugary mint tea poured from on high in a Tunisian bakery, or frequenting La Rue de la Huchette, the location of the underground jazz boîte Le Chat qui Pêche. There are other memories of couscous mouton, gros sandwiches Tunisiens, too much John Courage ale down the street at the Taverne de Cluny, and walking home late and almost getting run over by French cars with their low-beam city lights on. But I digress again….

Getting back to Jazz in the Space Age, it’s not surprising that the album still sounds fresh and unusual. In the first song, “Chromatic Universe—Part 1,” Bill Evans and Paul Bley are both on pianos and the piece begins with the sound of kitchen utensils scraping. The music combines a written score with plenty of open space for free improvisation. The challenging music was very different from the prevailing bebop and cool jazz of the day. Russell’s Lydian concept pushed the many musicians on the album to play in a distinct and innovative style. The orchestra included veteran jazz musicians such as trumpeters Ernie Royal, Marky Markowitz, and Al Kiger; trombonists Frank Rehak, Dave Baker, and Bob Brookmeyer; saxophonists Hal McKusick, Dave Young, Sol Schlinger; and guitarists Barry Galbraith and Howard Collins. George Russell penned the arrangements with the rest of the rhythm section, which featured the aforementioned Bill Evans and Paul Bley on pianos, Milt Hinton handling bass, and drummers Don Lamond and Charlie Persip.

This music is still totally original. Collectors can still find the 1960 Decca LP through, though the album has been reissued on CD via Chessmates, part of the Universal Music Group. You can sample the whole album on youtube, but why not add this little piece of jazz history to your collection instead?