The future of big bands looks bleak. Last year, Toshiko Akiyoshi announced the disbanding of her orchestra. She explained that maintaining a big band had kept her away from the piano, and she looked forward to being able to concentrate on her instrument. But she was also frustrated. After more than 30 years of leading one of the most highly regarded bands in the world, she still couldn't turn a profit. Opportunities to record in the United States were rare. When she finally arranged to record and produce her albums in Japan, she couldn't even get them distributed in the States. Finally, she gave up.
Fellow bandleaders have suffered similar fates. Carla Bley tours Europe regularly with her big band, but she can't afford to bring them onto US soil. Maria Schneider, who won a Grammy this year for her fan-funded Concert in the Garden, tours sporadically after losing a weekly gig at Visiones when the club closed. Bob Brookmeyer leads several small groups domestically, but maintains his big band in Europe. He is currently following in Schneider's footsteps with Spirit Music.
So it's little surprise that George Russell hasn't released a CD since 1996's It's About Time. His last two releases suffered from limited distribution by a small French label. His most recent is available exclusively through CDBaby, hopefully pending wider release. It was recorded during a tour of Europe in 2003 to commemorate his 80th birthday.
More than any other composer, Russell considers his craft to be a genuine science. In his own words:
I feel that music is not simply an art; but is on the highest level of physics; it is philosophical. ... Music is a part of the language of physics. ... So when I work, music for me is an expression of laws. These laws are evidenced in many areas of human endeavor and efforts. It is no coincidence that they are also at the basis of music.
The fact that music is an objective science and is based on objective laws has influenced me into leading the kind of life I have lived. I have pursued this effort and made it first above having a band in New York or anything else. Nothing on earth would have made me pursue the direction I have pursued other than that I think music is man's highest language. That's why it's understood the world over.
If I felt subjective about music, I would simply write music and not books. If I had a subjective feeling about music and about being able to interest people in my soul through music why should I write a book about it? I should only write music. But there's another urge present in me which forces me to consider the laws of music having an innate beauty of their own and underlying all music. So music is simply the medium through which these laws are channeled. You should be able to feel music and learn how to live your life or solve problems.
Russell's discovery, the Lydian Chromatic Concept, is groundbreaking. Modern jazz offers only two perspectives on relating chords with scales: the application of Greek modes, pioneered at Berklee by John LaPorta and Jack Peterson -- and the Concept. In simple terms, the Concept is the application of science to music. The Principle of Tonal Gravity (or "tonal magnetism") analyzes the forces which act on music, and establishes the Lydian scale as the primary source for musical function. This series of ascending fifths becomes "the center of a self-organized tonal gravity field in which all tonal phenomena are graded on the basis of their close to distant relationship to it."
Newcomers to the Concept are warned: First, this is not a quick read. What began as a pamphlet in 1953 has been developed and revised into the current fourth (and final) edition, a full-sized, 252-page textbook complete with illustrations, examples, and charts. It's strictly for serious study. Second: It will change your life. Whether or not you embrace the Concept, learning about it will yield insights that change the way you hear and play music, forever.
The compositions of George Russell speak for themselves. Craftsmen ripen with age and experience; and although Russell's 1960s sextet work was profound, his later compositions have no peer. He confronts subjects, like the beginnings of life with 1985's Grammy-winning The African Game, which resound across borders of race and nationality. He meticulously crafts each movement and cadence, insisting on equal perfection from both his pen and his orchestra. And more than any other composer, Russell sidesteps the major pitfall of jazz orchestration: He never plans a piece around a solo, but uses them only when they serve a larger purpose. His arrangements are never vehicles for blowing over changes. In Russell's music, a solo doesn't happen unless it complements the symphony.
It is remarkable that Russell has gone unrecognized by much of the world. Kind of Blue has become the best-selling jazz album ever. It has earned mention in every discussion of modern musical landmarks. Yet Russell is the man who planted the seed. When Miles remarked that he "wanted to learn all the changes," Russell set about to discover a way to do just that -- and he taught Miles. Less than a decade later, Miles had incorporated Russell's discoveries into what became modal jazz.
After his early impact on jazz, Russell has remained a tidal force underneath the music, refining his Concept for future generations. The only regret is that his dedication to an idea may have codified his reputation as an educator before his significance as a composer. Fortunately, we have his albums to celebrate the latter.
Happy Birthday, George.