Living Time Orchestra
June 23, 2005 11:04 AM   Subscribe

George Russell, jazz's first theoretician, has released a new album to commemorate his 80th birthday. When Miles Davis remarked that he "wanted to learn all the changes," Russell responded by conceiving his Lydian Chromatic Concept. First published in 1953, the Concept resulted in the most influential album in jazz history. Today Russell turns 82.
posted by cribcage (10 comments total)
The new CD features Russell's Living Time Orchestra performing new versions of his classic compositions. The African Game was one of the first CDs released by Blue Note upon the label's revival by Bruce Lundvall in 1985. The composition received two Grammy nominations, for Best Arrangement on an Instrumental and Best Jazz Instrumental Performance (Big Band). Also included is a new recording of the title piece from Russell's last CD, It's About Time, released in 1996.
posted by cribcage at 11:05 AM on June 23, 2005

I'd like to see a copy of his book, but he's asking for 125 bucks!
posted by horsewithnoname at 11:30 AM on June 23, 2005

This is a great post. You really put together some good info. I never fully got Russell's music, but after I get done reading this, you may have convinced me! And I didn't know that my Miles Davis album was influenced by Russell.

posted by dios at 11:33 AM on June 23, 2005

For Kind of Blue fans, I'll add that the new album features a performance of "So What." Russell transcribed Miles's original trumpet solo and orchestrated it as a theme for the full band.
posted by cribcage at 11:38 AM on June 23, 2005

As a UNIFIED TONAL GRAVITY FIELD, the Lydian Scale serves not only as the genesis of Tonal Gravity and the foundation of the Lydian Chromatic Scale, but also as the seminal source of chord/scale unity.

What, did the guy writing the copy get his start as a Usenet Kook?
posted by eriko at 12:46 PM on June 23, 2005

Nice post, and I always like to see jazz here on MeFi, but perhaps a little overstated.

First published in 1953, the Concept resulted in the most influential album in jazz history.

Kind of Blue is unquestionably the most popular album in jazz history, but I'm not sure it can be called the most influential. Even among Miles' albums, I'd nominate Birth of the Cool first (and yes, I know it wasn't originally an album), and Giant Steps, The Shape of Jazz To Come, Unit Structures would also be higher on the list. (The whole concept is a little silly, anyway, since jazz has traditionally been influenced more by live performances and single cuts—has any piece of music ever been more influential than Hawk's "Body and Soul"?—than by albums.)

More importantly, the book didn't "result" in the album; I'd be willing to wager the album would have been quite similar if Russell had never written a line. Miles had been getting tired of chord changes for a while, and he wasn't the only one; Ashley Kahn, in his excellent Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, says: "It was the too familiar structure of changes-after-changes that bred dissatisfaction. By the fifties, signs were pointing players off the chordal thruway, into a new jazz style: modal." I trust I needn't point out that Russell didn't invent modal music, which had been around for millennia, and the jazz musicians who worked with Russell's theories didn't usually try to apply them in all their intimidating detail. Miles himself, talking to Hentoff in 1958, said:
When Gil wrote the arrangement of "I Loves You, Porgy," he only wrote a scale for me to play. No chords. And that ... gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things.

When you go this way, you can go on forever. You don't have to worry about changes and you can do more with the [melody] line. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive you can be. When you're based on chords, you know at the end of 32 bars that the chords have run out and there's nothing to do but repeat what you've just done—with variations.

I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords.... there will be fewer chords but infinite possibilites as to what to do with them. Classical composers—some of them—have been writing this way for years, but jazz musicians seldom have.

When I want J.J. Johnson to hear something ... we just play the music over the phone. I did that the other day with some of Khachaturian's Armenian scales; they're different from the usual Western scales. Then we got to talking about letting the melodies and scales carry the tune. J.J. told me, "I'm not going to write any more chords." And look at George Russell. His writing is mostly scales. After all, you can feel the changes.
He was paying attention to Russell, but he clearly wasn't dominated by him.

Anyway, Russell's unquestionably a major musical thinker and theorist, but his actual music has never done much for me; I own Ezz-thetics and I think something else, but I don't often listen to it. For anyone who's interested in this sort of thing, though (actually, for anyone seriously interested in jazz), I recommend The Essential Jazz Records (Vol. 1, Vol. 2) by Max Harrison, Charles Fox and Eric Thacker, where three of Russell's albums are discussed in some detail—you can get a complete list of albums discussed here.
posted by languagehat at 1:42 PM on June 23, 2005

I'd be willing to wager the album would have been quite similar if Russell had never written a line.
I doubt that's true. I'm familiar with the challenges to George's claims, just as I'm familiar with people who insist that, without Bill Evans, Miles would nonetheless have played "Blue in Green." There are plenty of academic theories speculating about a lot of different things. I favor firsthand accounts.

Bottom line: These guys all hung out. They were together constantly, hanging at shows and in each other's apartments. I don't buy any theories that pretend everyone was completely independent. The story I believe about "Blue in Green" is that Miles handed Bill a couple chords, and Bill came back with the tune. Same deal here, a few years earlier: Miles had an idea, and George took it home and figured it out. Without George, without Kind of Blue.

And of course, that doesn't discredit Miles in the least. His reputation has always been as a catalyst. No, I don't think he wrote "Blue in Green"; but without Miles's suggestion, Bill would never have written it. Miles's major contribution to jazz history was as an architect, in creating situations. George says he formed the ideas that were the basis for Kind of Blue; and knowing his concept, I believe him. That doesn't discredit Miles. If not for Miles's initial suggestion, the whole thing might never have happened.
posted by cribcage at 2:13 PM on June 23, 2005

To those unfamiliar with Russell, I recommend both Ezz-Thetics and The Outer View. He's a slightly obscure performer, it may be worthwhile to track his protèges:

Eric Dolphy
Bill Evans
Kenny Dorham
Miles Davis
John Coltrane
Pete LaRoca
Don Ellis

The list above includes musicians he worked with directly. Second-generation influences include Grant Green and Joe Henderson.
posted by vhsiv at 2:15 PM on June 23, 2005

As for recommendations: I'd start with the brand-new 80th birthday concert. First, it's a (non-RIAA) double-CD for $17.95, which is a good value. Second, it features several great examples of his work. Third, and most importantly: Craftsmen get better with age. Brookmeyer cut some great records in 1954. (If you can find a copy of The Blues: Hot and Cold, do.) But his current music is on a whole different level.

George's sextet work is classic, maybe timeless. But his recent compositions are without peer. They're important. He has grown, matured, learned, and put years of experience to work in his craft. His 1996 recording is amazing. If both albums were in print and available for reasonable prices, I'd recommend It's About Time over Ezz-thetics in a heartbeat.
posted by cribcage at 2:43 PM on June 23, 2005

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