When Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor were honing their skills as sidemen in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the composer-arranger George Russell was already changing the course of jazz with his music and the theory that grounds it. Yet while the cognoscenti may have heard about his Lydian Chromatic Concept and its influence, Russell remains a cipher to most jazz fans. This is surprising, for he has pioneered a fresh approach to playing jazz that inspired several legendary musicians to realize some of their finest work. Even today, though his hearing has diminished (Russell blames his many years on bandstands), his schedule
hasn't; it encompasses teaching, touring, and the continual honing of his theory, which is at once scientific and spiritual.
Discussing his career in a Central Park West hotel last fall, he occasionally apologized for his careful deliberations: "I got a lot up here," he explained, pointing to his brain. Many times he referred to a book on the table, a book he's been writing and rewriting for over 50 years. The cover is illustrated with a jagged mountaintop against a cloudy sky. It's the fourth edition of his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, an imposing 268-page volume made even more imposing by the subtitle: "Volume One: The Art and Science of Tonal Gravity." Even when delving into his childhood, Russell returns to the book: "I always had an inner voice that I developed in the Concept."
And so the Cincinnati native (born 80 years ago this month) began on his musical path. He started with drums, which took him from a Boy Scout band to nightclub gigs to a college band, before landing in Benny Carter's group and moving to Manhattan. When Max Roach proved more versatile, Carter canned him in 1944. Russell took the dismissal in stride, and decided that he'd focus on composition instead.
Russell found himself at the center of a creative hot spot. With the post-war jazz movement in full bloom, he was soon rubbing elbows with everyone from Charlie Parker and Miles Davis to Bill Evans and John Coltrane. And what did these exalted figures discuss? "Mostly women! It was about music, too. The question was always, 'Where do we go from here?' There was no looking back. The whole atmosphere was wonderful." He had a particularly significant conversation with Davis. When Russell asked him what his aim was, Davis said, "I want to learn all the chords." Russell (who assumed that he already knew the chords) kept that in mind. It would ultimately provide the means for him to realize the Concept.
During this time, Russell wrote the groundbreaking Latin-jazz classic "Cubano Be/Cubano Bop" for Dizzy Gillespie's big band (1947) and the jazz-classical pastiche "A Bird in Igor's Yard" for a Buddy DeFranco ensemble (1949); the latter, Russell's attempt to combine the influences of Parker and Stravinsky, was considered so daring that the label refused to release it for more than two decades.
Just when he was beginning to achieve recognition as a major young composer, tuberculosis sidelined Russellat one point, he was hemorrhaging so bad he was given last rights. He spent 15 months recuperating in a Bronx hospital, but his determination never waned. "I said to myself, there's a way out of this. I kept dwelling on what Miles said, how he wanted to learn all the chords, wondering how you'd go about that. So I started out with the major chords." As Russell repeatedly ran through scales on the hospital's solarium piano, other patients threw bananas at him. "It'd drive me nuts too!" he confessed. "But in the end, it saved my life."
Out of his obsession came the Lydian Concept. Though spoken of reverently for its influence, many found it an intellectually rigorous, occasionally impenetrable theorynot unlike Ornette Coleman's harmolodics, many years later. Russell scrupulously examined centuries-old music theories, including church modes, which provided the basis for most early composition. A mode is basically a scale distinguished by its tonic and dominant notes; but whereas a scale is identified with one key, a mode denotes the characteristics of a particular scale transposed to any key. By the 15th century, the Ionian mode in the key of C (with its tonic C and dominant G) had been established as the primary scale for music in the Western world.
For Russell, the Lydian mode (with, in the key of C, its tonic F and dominant C) was a more logical candidate to become the primary scale because it suggests a greater degree of unity between chords and scales. Russell argues that a major scale, for example C, consists of two tetrachords that embody two tonalities, not one. But if you adapt the major scale to Lydian mode (in the key of C that would be a C major scale with F-sharp instead of F), it removes the duality of conflicting tonics, and more fully satisfies the tonality of the major chord. With one tonic used for each respective scale, Russell reasoned that a greater variety of chords could be stacked. This offered a new path for adventurous musicians: Standard chord progressions need not dictate the course of an improvisation, as each note is equidistant from a single tonic center. Notes could flow more freely beyond the strictures of a song's chords.