Ferocious memorial to good-humored avant-gardist

hal oversees

On-screen: Hal Russell and Mars Williams circa 1990; foreground: Ken Vandermark, Steve Hunt and Williams. Photo by Marc PoKempner

Saxophonists Mars Williams and Ken Vandermark played like wild beasts before a tight and determinedly transgressive troupe recalling little-known but regionally influential multi-instrumentalist/bandleader Hal Russell (1926-1992) last night in Millenium Park’s swanky Pritzker Pavillion (the one designed by Frank Gehry) as part of the city’s free Made In Chicago: World Class Jazz series.

With bassist Kent Kessler, percussionist Steve Hunt and guitarist-bassist-trumpeter Brian Sandstrom — like Williams, stalwarts of Russell’s 1979-’92 NRG Ensemble — plus cellist-cornetist Fred Lonberg-Holm and narration by actor Michael Shannon (the tortured, murderous revenue agent of Boardwalk Empire), the two horn players employed fierce energy and wide-stretched expressive ranges to power irreglar yet structured, open-ended but conclusive works of an original if never-quite-fashionable musician whose late-life signing to ECM Records preceded his fatal heart attack by only one year.

It was impressive and shouldn’t be overlooked that the mid-summer’s eve concert attendees comprised not just hard-core jazz-beyond-jazz fans but a broad demographic including families with kids who romped as the players onstage roared, squealed, scratched and stomped. Three times this week — at Kelan Phil Cohran‘s Garfield Conservatory show, Dee Alexander’s performance on the terrace of the Museum of Contemporary Art (unfortunately the set I went for was rained out) and here at the Pavillion — I’ve observed diverse, casually curious and overall receptive Chicago audiences enjoying out-of-the-mainstream music. (Tonight through Sunday we’re pop-central as host to Lollapalooza, some of it being streamed live.)

Hal Russell was definitely out of the mainstream. At his death in 1992, he had struggled for more than a decade to establish his oddball but characteristically warm-hearted, even humorous ouevre. Earlier he’d been a swing-oriented drummer and occasional vibist, trumpet major in college and bebop sideman. By 1981, when he released his Nessa debut album, he’d added tenor and soprano saxes as well as novelty soundmakers to his arsenal, sometimes made utterances using a bullhorn or megaphone and embraced freedom from conventions encouraged by Ornette Coleman, the AACM, maybe Charles Ives, Frank Zappa and the dryly funny Dutch school of maverick improvisers.

early nrg

NRG circa 1980. From left: Chuck Burdelik, Curt Bley, Hal Russell, Steve Hunt, Brian Sandstrom. Photo by Ann Nessa

Although well-regarded by a coterie of young Midwestern players, Russell enjoyed scant broader acclaim until his late ’80s northern European tours. But his music has taken hold. Note to millennials: Beware wizened, wind-blow and/or white-haired boomers bearing instruments. They mean business. Now older and harder, Russell’s former acolytes performed at high intensity for about 90 minutes and took no prisoners. A Jazz Institute of Chicago Jazz Links Ensemble featuring alto saxist Jenna Przybysz, trombonist Chris Shuttleworth, vibist Ben Karon, bassist Liam Coussens and drummer Michael Hojnacki opened the show worthily, though not with the same brio.

Ironman Vandermark (the MacArthur fellow who has promoted ties between Chicagoans and rugged Euro improvisers such as Peter Brotzmann and Mats Gustafson) and spitfire Williams (leader of Liquid Soul, member of the Psychedelic Furs among other rock-world gangs, he likes to begin where Albert Ayler left off and from there go to dog-whistle pitch) partnered like cannon and ball. Sandstrom had many contrasting ideas, using a slide on already-distorted guitar, burbling into his trumpet mouthpiece. Lonberg-Holm made finding the rudest snaps and crackles on his cello seem easy, while Kessler held the bass throb firm, unless he was sawing with bow. Hunt played kettle drums as well as traps, lending a reference to Duke Ellington’s jungle band classics, and chilled things out on vibes. Michael Shannon effectively intoned Russell’s quasi-autobiographical texts from The Hal Russell Story (a posthumous release). He looked younger than on HBO.

The NRG Ensemble, personnel as mentioned, still gigs — here’s a sample from June at The Hideout.

Need it be mentioned that individuals much less groups sustaining such fervor, expansiveness, complexity and laughs, too, for some 35 years are rare and invaluable? Hal Russell would have been moved. In the photos projected above the players, he was almost always smiling.
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  1. says

    Your photograph of the ca. 1980 NRG Ensemble shows, from left to right, multi-saxophonist Chuck Burdelik, bassist Curt Bley, drummer-trumpeter-vibist-C-melody-saxophonist Hal Russsell, drummer-vibist Steve Hunt, bassist-guitarist Brian Sandstrom. Later these five musicians played other instruments as well. They stayed together until the mid-1980s, when Bley, then Burdelik moved onward.

    • says

      thanks John — Chuck Nessa informed me of that correct lineup too, and James A. Baker has given me an expanded explanation of NRG personnel, which I’ve asked permission to re-post.

  2. j baker says

    in the NRG circa 1980 photo, the two leftmost players are saxophonist Chuck Burdelik & bassist Curt Bley.
    my recollection is that sometime later, Curt Bley left the group & was replaced by Kent Kessler; a while after that, Chuck left and was replaced by Paul Kober, who was then subsequently replaced by Ken Vandermark, who was subsequently replaced by Mars Williams (who had played with Hal prior to when I’d first heard the group but by then had departed for NY, ultimately [after Creative Music Studio& various other jazz-related stuff] ending up playing with the Waitresses & the Furs, and many others). Burdelik is a monster player who also played with Damon Short (a percussionist who conceivably could be be construed as vying with Hal for some kind of hypothetical “most egregiously discounted/overlooked bandleader” competition) but at this point I think Mr Burdelik may have pretty much retired from playing music (though one could hope for a “relapse” of sorts..) . Mr Bley showed up at Beat Kitchen a few weeks ago & sat in, and also has playing with pianist Rob Clearfield, and probably others.

    • says

      thanks Jim — this fleshes out some of the coterie immediately influenced by working with Hal Russell — but you left yourself out! I think you told me you performed briefly with NRG 3. Monday I’m coming to the Beat Kitchen.

  3. says

    Jim Baker is thoroughly right about the excellence of Chuck Burdelik’s music. He played passionate, intense energy music with both Russell and Short, and Short’s music also gave him more opportunities to reveal his purely lyrical side. And Jim Baker is also right about Damon Short’s prodigious gifts as a composer. (Of course, Jim Baker, bless him, has enhanced the musics of both Russell and Short.)

    By the way, there was a period (about 1984 or 85 IIRC) when Hal and the NRG Ensemble played every Saturday in a record store on North Clark Street. Each week Rafael (Donald) Garrett sat in with NRG on various instrument, especially on tenor sax, and the band would stretch out. So Hal asked Rafael to join the NRG Ensemble permanently. Rafael refused and said, No, you play songs whereas I strictly improvise.