A hundred years into its history, and the definition of jazz remains a matter for contention. Traditions are invented, rules delineated, absolutes postulated, and no one agrees on anything except that it must be an improvised, intuitive music. But even this simple piety is contradicted by the fact that jazz can be composed, and even arranged, to sound improvised. Three of the greatest jazz musicians were writers and arrangers of improvisation: Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, and, still making the point, George Russell.
Starting as a drummer in the 1940s, Russell later became an arranger of pop tunes for dance bands like Artie Shaw’s, Charlie Ventura’s, and Claude Thornhill’s. Yet even his journeyman writing for those groups was so distinctive that his pieces helped shaped the jazz to come. His “Cubana Be, Cubana Bop” for Dizzy Gillespie in 1947, for example, introduced hardcore Afro-Cuban religious chanting and drumming into American popular music. “A Bird in Igor’s Yard” for Buddy DeFranco’s 1949 band included passages of suspended or displaced rhythms, melodies begun by one horn section and completed by another, bass lines with lives of their own, all of it uncategorizable. Later, during a long illness, Russell developed a radical critique of harmony which argued that not only jazz but all Western music was wrongly conceived and self-limiting, and he offered a theory which promised that melody could to some degree move independently from harmony (somewhat akin to speaking without worrying about grammar). It was this analysis that incited Miles Davis to record the floating melodies of Kind of Blue.
But there was more to come: with the sonically startling Jazz in the Space Age in 1960, and New York, N.Y.— a really old-school rap-suite with singer Jon Hendricks— in 1961, it was clear that Russell was on his own page. After some years in Europe, he recorded the 1968 Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature, mixing together live jazz, African and Moroccan field recordings, prepared tapes, and Terje Rypdal’s ring-modulated guitar into an ocean of sound he called “panstylistic collage.” It anticipated Holger Czukay’s shortwave appropriations in Can and Lee Perry’s TV samples, and laid the groundwork for the musical dislocations we now expect of the best DJs. No surprise then that he next added the back-crack of rock rhythm to his mix, demonstrating— like Miles, Gil Evans, and even Ellington— that whatever jazz is, it was never simply a matter of a particular beat.
But restless innovation like Russell’s does not go unpunished. Fans fell by the wayside, writers began to stumble over the usual career-summary paragraph, his use of electronics reportedly cost him a tribute at Lincoln Center, and until this month he hadn’t appeared here for almost 20 years. But he still records and performs abroad, he’s won the Guggenheim (twice!) and MacArthur awards, he teaches at New England Conservatory, and his records are back in print.
It was the Lost Shrines of Jazz series (currently celebrating the long-gone Five Spot Cafe) that brought Russell’s 15-piece International Living Time Orchestra on May 8 to the Tribeca Arts Center, where he revisited some of his landmark compositions: “All About Rosie” (1957), three variations on an African American children’s game song that progress through shifting meters and pan-tonal blues, then end with roiling polyphony and breathtaking swing; Gil Evans’s arrangement of Russell’s own “Stratusphunk,” a blues pushed to the limits of the form; and “An American Trilogy,” a reworking of his dense and tart treatments of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and his own multi-themed “The Ballad of Hix Blewitt.”
He ended the evening with a cheerful “It’s About Time” from his new CD of the same name, but what he didn’t play from that recording is “Living Time,” a 50-minute suite he first issued in 1972 under Bill Evans’s name. It was a record much reviled in its day, and possibly the only Evans album never reissued on CD— critics trashed it, fans wrote threatening letters, even the liner notes warned listeners off. Now with better sound, and with an expanded orchestra including French pianist Paul-Christian Staicu, it seems very much of its time, capturing the musical ferment from fusion to free jazz in a panoramic sweep. It’s also obvious now that those reassuring rock rhythms make Russell’s compositions seem more innocent than they really are: underneath lie shifting moods and tone centers, overlapping contrapuntal figures, and riffs which skip across the beat and erode tonality. Even deeper yet, there are his serpentine, rumbling, 5/2 bass lines: perhaps subsonic representations of a musical world to which jazz— whatever that is— is still afraid to commit.