Friday, May 31, 2013

George Russell - Part One

George Russell (1925-2009) is one of the most important figures in 20th century music. As a theorist, his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization introduced the concept of chordmode, which synthesized horizontal (linear) and vertical (chordal) pitch organization into a single principle. A similar principle had already been known to Western theory since the Baroque period, but Russell articulated it in terms of contemporary jazz practice, at a time in American history when Baroque music theory would have been inaccessible (for obvious reasons) to many practicing jazz musicians.

The LCC was first published in 1953, but only a handful of copies were made. It saw a second, more prolific printing in 1959, at a time when more and more colleges were hiring jazz musicians as faculty members. Russell's chordmode idea influenced David Baker, whose student, Jamey Aebersold, would later build a publishing franchise out of the idea.

As a result, Russell's ideas became and remain the cornerstones of contemporary jazz education, although this contribution of his is seldom recognized, and few (if any) of his compositions have entered the "standards" repertoire.

Russell was also an inspired composer and arranger. In the late 1940's he wrote large ensemble works for Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, and Artie Shaw. Throughout his life he wrote and directed many major works, and led various small groups in America and Europe. In 1969 he joined the faculty at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music, a position he held until 2004. He received three Guggenheim fellowships (1969, 1972 and 1980), six NEA fellowships (1969, 1976, 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1985) and a MacArthur fellowship (1989).

As a pianist, Russell had a probing, rhythmic style, highly inspired by Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, and somewhat reminiscent of the early Cecil Taylor.

George Russell - Lydiot

To my knowledge, the first recording of this tune was on Russell's 1960 large ensemble recording Jazz in the Space Age. It was recorded again the following year on his sextet recording Ezz-thetics. The two versions are slightly different; this transcription is from the latter source. It's a pretty typical Russell tune, a sort of Schoenbergian post-bop line.

I'm not too sure about the chords. I listened carefully to Steve Swallow's basslines and Russell's chords, and this is what I came up with. As always, feedback is welcome.

I'm working on a transcription of Russell's composition "Ezz-thetic", which I'll post next time. Stay tuned!

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