In 1966 on Jazz Review on WDSU-FM in New Orleans, I devoted five programs to a survey of George Russell’s music. It opened with these words:
Over the next few weeks we’re going to consider the recorded work of George Russell, not only because Russell’s music is interesting, absorbing listening, but because of his influence on the development of jazz in the sixties–an influence, I believe, more profound and widespread than is generally recognized, even by many musicians.
Russell believes 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.
Then followed a discussion of Russell’s Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization, which allows the writer 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. For more on that, go to Russell’s web site.
Listening to the recordings of George Russell’s small bands of the 1950s and ’60s is as stimulating now as when I first heard them. They have some of the finest early work of Bill Evans, Art Farmer, Hal McKusick and others. What a welcome surprise it is, all these years later, to see performances of some of the music Russell wrote for the group he called his Smalltet. A kinescope of the final program of The Subject Is Jazz, a series that ran on WNBC-TV in New York in 1958, has popped up on YouTube. It includes the Smalltet doing “Concerto For Billy The Kid,” the piece that first brought Bill Evans to the attention of many musicians and listeners. Russell also appears, chatting with host Gilbert Seldes about his approach to music. The musicians include Evans, Farmer, Doc Severinsen, Gene Quill, Tony Scott, Barry Galbraith and Jimmy Cleveland. To see the entire program, go here. “Concerto For Billy The Kid” comes up about six minutes into the show.
The RCA album The George Russell Smalltet Jazz Workshop was reissued on CD in the late 1980s. It has gone out of print, but a few copies are still available for a small fortune. Now in his mid-eighties, Russell retired from teaching at the New England Conservatory four years ago. He continues to compose. This article by Ed Hazell brings us nearly up to date.