Bill Evans And George Russell

Following the Bill Evans birthday piece three days ago, a note from Alan Broadbent about Evans reminded me of a Rifftides post from five years ago. The piece placed Evans in the context of his work in the 1950s with George Russell. It appeared on the occasion of Russell’s death, and it included video of some of Evans’ most stimulating playing. This appeared on July 29, 2009.

George Russell, 1923-2009

Thumbnail image for GeorgeRussell waves.jpgGeorge Russell died Monday night. Here are some of the facts of his life, outlined by the Associated Press.

BOSTON (AP) — Jazz composer George Russell, a MacArthur fellow whose theories influenced the modal music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, has died. His publicist says Russell, who taught at the New England Conservatory, died Monday in Boston at age 86 of complications from Alzheimer’s.

Russell was born in Cincinnati in 1923 and attended Wilberforce University. He played drums in Benny Carter’s band and later wrote ”Cubano Be/Cubano Bop” for Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra. It premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1947 and was the first fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz. Russell developed the Lydian concept in 1953. It’s credited as the first theoretical contribution from jazz.
Russell is survived by his wife, his son and three grandchildren. A release says a memorial service will be planned.

The first sentence of that AP story barely suggests Russell’s importance. There will be much more written and spoken about him in the next few days by scholars and historians, as there should be. The work he did, particularly in the 1950s and ’60s, had major influence on the thinking and performance of musicians who were shaping new ways of approaching the music. On a radio program I did in the sixties, I devoted five weeks of broadcasts to Russell’s music. This was the introduction to that series on Jazz Review on WDSU-FM in New Orleans in September and October of 1966.

Over the next few programs we’re going to consider the recorded work of George Russell – not only because Russell’s music is interesting, absorbing listening, but also because of his influence of the development of jazz in the sixties, an influence, I believe, more profound and widespread than is generally recognized even by many musicians. It may well develop that Russell is having an impact on the course of jazz as great as, or greater than, that of such imitated innovators as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.

Russell believes that jazz must develop on its own terms, from within. He believes that to borrow the concepts of classical music and force jazz into the mold of the classical tradition results in something perhaps interesting, perhaps Third Stream music, but not jazz. Faced with this conviction that jazz musicians must look to jazz for their means of growth, Russell set about creating a framework within which to work.

In 1953 he completed his Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization. The system is built onThumbnail image for Russell at piano.jpg what he calls pan-tonality, bypassing the atonal ground covered by modern classical composers and making great use of chromaticism. Russell explains that pan-tonality allows the write and the improviser to retain the scale-based nature of the folk music in which jazz has its roots, yet have the freedom of being in a number of tonalities at once. Hence, pan-tonality.

That’s a brief and far from complete reduction of George Russell’s theory, on which he worked for ten years. It’s all in Russell’s book, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Jazz Improvisation.

Freedom within restrictions, however broad.

Improvising Russell’s way demands great technical skill. Listening to his recordings, one is struck by the virtuoso nature of the players. Some of their names: Bill Evans, Paul Bley, Don Ellis, Dave Baker, John Coltrane, Art Farmer, Steve Swallow, Eric Dolphy. Thumbnail image for Jazz in The Space Age.jpgEvans is featured soloist in Russell’s 1960 Decca recording, Jazz In The Space Age, the most thorough application of Russell’s theories to a large band. If you’re not familiar with Russell, all that talk about concepts and theories and pan-tonality and chromaticism may have led you to expect something dry and formidable. On the contrary, there’s a sense of fun and airiness in the music. The humor is subtle, but it’s there. And, I should add, it’s more evident after several hearings.

For five Saturdays, engineer Charlie Flatt played and I talked about Russell’s music, reaching back to 1947 and his “Cubano Be-Cubano Bop” for Gillespie and up to his 1963 quintet album The Outer View. The survey included the classic “All About Rosie,” commissioned by Brandeis University in 1957, the smalltet recordings for RCA, Russell’s series of Riverside albums and the remarkable suite New York, New York, a work recorded in 1958 and 1959 that brought together, among other players, Evans, Coltrane, Bob Brookmeyer, Art Farmer, and Phil Woods, all interesting young musicians who went on to be among the most influential in jazz.

For a sense of Russell and New York milieu in which he operated in the late 1950s, video of a 1958 edition of The Subject Is Jazz brings together several of the musicians who played his music. It includes a version of Rusell’s “Concerto For Billy The Kid,” with a Bill Evans solo not as electrifying as the one on this recording. Nonetheless, it presents Evans in the context of Russell’s work, and it is followed by critic Gilbert Seldes interviewing Russell about his concept. The program also has two pieces featuring Billy Taylor. If you stay with it for all 24 minutes, you’ll see credits for the musicians. And, yes the trumpeter identified as Carl Severinsen is Doc Severinsen. You may never have thought of him as a bebopper, but listen to those solos.

Was George Russell a force in opening jazz to greater freedom In the late fifties and early sixties, as I suggested 43 years ago, or did his Lydian Chromatic Concept synthesize ideas that were already in the air? Some of each, perhaps. Either way, he created some of the most stimulating music of his day, up to, including and beyond his collaboration with avant garde trumpeter Don Cherry. I am less enchanted with his later electronic works, but I’m going to dig them out and give myself another chance with them. After all, it’s George Russell; there may be more than met the ear the first time around.

Following that 1966 series of radio programs about Russell, I sent him a transcript, not knowing whether he would ever see it. I heard reports from New York that he was discouraged and had left the US to live in Europe. A few months later he sent me a letter from Stockholm.

It is like I have waited a lifetime to hear someone say the things which you did concerning my music (and if I never hear them again I will not feel that my efforts in jazz have gone unrewarded). I received the transcript at the right moment, too, for I was in one of those states of flux that I’ve come to accept as a necessary but painful part of artistic growth. It is very trying during these times to keep one’s self-confidence and I must admit that my morale was sagging more than a little bit. But your sensitive views of my music worked wonders.

Closing a long letter, Russell wrote that he hoped we would meet one day. We never did.
(For an obituary containing insights into Russell’s methods see the article by Brian Marquard and Michael Bailey in today’s Boston Globe)

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  1. David says

    Sometime in the ‘70s, I was at a friend’s house and spotted a copy of Russell’s infamous book. I opened it to a passage in which Russell showed how a Charlie Parker solo could be analyzed as a series of lydian scales by dividing it into seemingly random sections. I never had any further desire to explore Russell’s theories but I enjoy much of his music.

    • says

      For a musician’s insights into Russell’s impact on jazz, and on Russell’s personality, read Bill Kirchner’s comments in a 2012 interview with Ethan Iverson on Iverson’s blog Do The Math. Go here, and scroll down to the Russell section about two-thirds into the transcript.

  2. Patrick Hinely says

    As forgettable as some critics have found it, we should not forget Russell’s and Evans’ final collaboration, LIVING TIME, recorded for what was then Columbia in 1972, which possesses its own charms, though more consistently cogent to my ears is Russell’s ELECTRONIC SONATA FOR SOULS LOVED BY NATURE – 1968, recorded in Norway during Russell’s voluntary exile, in 1969, and first issued in the US on Flying Dutchman in 1971 (now out on Soul Note) featuring such Scandinavian then-newbies as Jan Garbarek, Jon Christensen and Terje Rypdal, along with German Euro-Avant vet Manfred Schoof, and fellow American expat Red Mitchell anchoring on bass, himself no stranger to those shores. Russell’s command of that ship is far more collaborative than dictatorial and it’s invigorating to hear those young personalities emerging with such spirit; they have since sounded louder but seldom better.

  3. Donna Shore says

    Not sure if many know, but my son’s father, David Morris Wheat aka ‘Buckwheat,’ was a close, dear friend of George Russell and an enthusiastic proponent of “The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization”.

    His influence made a huge impact on many musicians because if he discovered an intelligent musician who might be able to grasp the concept, he had a captive audience. A few of his students were Jimmy Rowles, Jimmy Wyble, Walter Becker, Ivan Neville, Bryce Rohde, Bruce Cale and several others I may not know of.

    I was so moved by the piece you posted about George. His appreciation of your recognition was something that Buckwheat would have loved to read. A few of our friends believe that The Lydian Concept influenced Bill’s contribution to “Kind of Blue” and that it also helped to inspire Jimmy Rowles’ composition, “The Peacocks.”

    • says

      I studied the LCOTO ( Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization), with George Russell in 1961 when the book was only in manuscript. All told I had six lessons, At each one he read aloud from the manuscript, one lesson at a time, illustrating at the piano the scale concepts as applied to chords.

      I then went home after each lesson and practiced 3 -6 hours daily memorizing all the scale Concepts and applied them to standard tunes. Then after one month I took the next lesson. This continued for six lessons, all told.

      After 10-15 years of absorbing the Concept I realized that the Major/Minor scale system was all I needed to transform chord changes, (Vertical) into the linear, (Horizontal) aspect for improvising; I then devised my own concept. I wanted desperately to free my melodic improvising from reliance on the chord progression. Working on the LCOTO helped me tremendously to think and hear linearly but it was the Major/Minor scale system that made it much simpler for me.

      George’s original music is fantastic and very challenging. (After he heard my solo “TRIBUTES” LP, he chose me to be his pianist in his New York Band in 1982). We went on to tour all the major festivals in Europe that summer and returned to NYC to play one week at the Village Vanguard. It was an important period in my overall pianistic development as an improviser.

      I also believe that without his total commitment, enthusiasm and application of his Lydian Concept to his own Compositions, George would just be another ordinary composer. His book is still available and is in its “final” complete form that is readily absorbable to any intelligent musician willing to spend the long hours to study and apply its concepts to his/her own compositions and improvising.

  4. Terry Martin says

    Don’t know about Lydian concepts but I know that the ‘Billy the Kid’ tune is ‘I’ll Remember April.’
    About the middle late 50’s Conte Candoli had an album out with a number called ‘Tune for Tex.’ Just him with piano, bass, and Shelley Manne, or by another name ‘Double Exposure.’ I wonder if the piano player was Billy Taylor.

    • says

      That 1954 Bethlehem album is Sincerely Conti (sic). “Tune for Tex” is on “I Got Rhythm” changes, but the album includes a version of “I’ll Remember April.” The rhythm section is Claude Williamson, piano; Max Bennett, bass; and Stan Levey, drums. Bethlehem may not have known how to spell Candoli’s first name, but it’s a splendid quartet album from his 1950s prime.

  5. Bob Godfrey says

    “Billy The Kid” sounds like “I’ll Remember April” to me. but I could be wrong.

  6. says


    George Russell’s response to your manuscript is a reminder that musicians, often famous ones, sometimes operate in a vacuum. It’s like dropping a penny down a wishing well, listening for the coin to hit the water and never hearing it. Does anybody out there know what I’m doing? Does anyone care? Have I spent my life pursuing knowledge and acquiring skills for nothing? Obviously, Doug, your comments meant a great deal to Russell. We can all take a lesson from this; if you really admire what a musician is doing, spend a few moments telling him/her. Forget “Oh, they’re too busy…or “They’ll think I’m weird.” Everybody can use a pat on the back every now and then. Who knows? Maybe your kind word will give that person the strength to go on.