Tuesday, July 29, 2014

George Russell - Part Two

I'm not keen on explaining myself to "The Internet", but I feel that a 14-month delay deserves a bit of background, especially when it bears directly on the subject at hand.

When I planned on doing a two-part feature on George Russell's compositions, I had already transcribed both "Lydiot" and "Ezz-Thetic". I had consulted various recordings of the latter, eventually settling on what I took to be the "definitive" version: the version on Russell's Jazz Workshop (rec'd in 1956). I also referred to his recording from a few years later entitled Ezz-Thetics (1961).

Russell's Jazz Workshop (1956)

But as I continued my research, I realized that there were many recordings of "Ezz-Thetic", and almost all of them were different in some key ways. I'll return to this point as we go along. Let's first get to the tune.

In a post from April 2013, I mentioned that Max Roach characterized modern jazz in New York as having an "uptown" and "downtown" school. The uptown school was defined by the crowd that included Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the downtown school was defined by Lennie Tristano and his various students (especially Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh). Of course, these schools were not homogenous and isolated; collaborations and sharing of ideas was commonplace. But they had their definite identities that can be heard in the music. (think about the difference between Miles Davis' "Donna Lee" and Lennie Tristano's "Wow"!)

George Russell's "Ezz-Thetic" was written in 1948, but it has a strikingly idiosyncratic sound, even compared to both the uptown and downtown schools. Tristano, Monk, and others experimented with dissonance, but not like this. Russell's melody stretches the harmonic structure of Cole Porter's "Love For Sale" to its limits, nearly tearing it to pieces:

(A lot of information that was available to the band on the recording date that is missing here. But this lead sheet should be enough to get you started.)

The composition is easily Russell's most well-known, having been recorded in 1951 for Prestige by a group led by Lee Konitz which included Miles Davis. (By the way, this recording is a great example of how the uptown and downtown schools worked together: Konitz, pianist Sal Mosca, bassist Arnold Fishkin and guitarist Billy Bauer were all Tristano-ites, and were working with Davis and Max Roach.) Russell himself recorded "Ezz-Thetic" at least three times, and versions also exist by Grant Green and Max Roach. In addition, the New York Contemporary Five (led by Archie Shepp) used the introductory statement of "Ezz-Thetic" as a sign-off to end their shows. Russell even wrote an arrangement for Charlie Parker and strings, but this was never recorded.

Russell's Ezz-Thetics (1961)

Transcribing "Ezz-Thetic" was challenging, not just because of the angularity of the melody, but because in each recording, there are slight differences made to the melody's notes and rhythms. For example, compare bars 5-6 of the version on Russell's Jazz Workshop and Ezz-Thetics recordings:

Ex. 1

with Grant Green's recording (Solid, rec'd 1964):

Ex. 2

Green's recording, which features saxophonists James Spauling and Joe Henderson, is different from Russell's in a number of other ways, and deserves a lead sheet of its own. As a second example, compare the last two bars of the bridge on three versions. First, the version from Russell's Jazz Workshop and Ezz-Thetics:

Ex. 3

Note the ascending 1-2-1 (semitone - whole tone - semitone) relationship in the second bar of the example, resulting in a downward major-3rd needed to return to the tonic. Next, the same two bars in Green's version:

Ex. 4

In this case, an ascending 1-2-2 (semi-whole-whole tone) relationship is heard. But this is jarringly different in Lee Konitz's version (The New Sounds, Prestige, rec'd 1951), in which he swaps the Eb and E(nat):

Ex. 5

On the Prestige recording, the head out consists just of one playing of the tune's A section, so we don't get to hear Konitz play this version of the bridge again. But if we fast-forward by 35 years, we can find another version recorded by Konitz in which he plays the same figure. (Ideal Scene, Soul Note 1986). If we wish to pursue the matter further, we can look to Konitz's duo record with pianist Harold Danko entitled Wild as Springtime. On both the alternate and the master take, Konitz (in unison with Danko) plays the figure in Ex. 5.

Such examples present us with some philosophical puzzles that are beyond the scope of this blog post, but which are partly responsible for the 14-month delay in its publication! One thing is clear: It's disingenuous to say that Konitz, Green, Henderson, etc. were all playing the tune "wrongly". (Especially when you consider that Russell himself wrote the bridge as Ex. 5 for his New York Band... see Live in an American Time Spiral, rec'd 1982) So the whole debate just seems a little dumb: try your best to respectfully represent the tune, whether you're transcribing it or whether you're playing it.

Lee Konitz, The New Sounds

So that's my excuse for the delay on part 2. Oh yeah, I also moved to Nashville, got a dog, and got married.

[In researching this blog post, I came upon the doctoral dissertation of Peter Kenagy, which provided very useful details about Russell's Jazz Workshop album. Thanks for your work, Peter.]

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