George Russell (1923-2009) was the first to propose and write down a theory of jazz from within the music, rejecting the idea that Western Classical music theory can explain what’s going on in jazz.
A lot of people have heard of his Lydian-Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization but for a few are Russell-ites. It’s pretty out there as a book: You have to unlearn a lot of things to get into it: Imagine sitting at the piano and looking down seeing ‘middle F’ instead of ‘middle C’. In other words, the fundamental tonal system is based on a major scale with a sharp 4, not the ‘normal’ major scale. What follows is a seemingly random collection of scales, classified according to levels of consonance and dissonance. But whatever the weirdness of his ideas (for ex. Dominant chords are now on the 2nd degree, not on the 5th) his records are awesome, in particular the Bluebird Recordings, New York, NY, Jazz in the Space Age, and his 80th Birthday Concert, to name but a few.
These have helped shaping the music as we know it. Now, George Russell is viewed as a path-breaker for orchestral jazz writers, electronics, for the Miles/Coltrane modal period, early champion of Carla Bley, Art Farmer, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman, Sheila Jordan, Paul Bley, later Jan Garbarek, and many more.
I managed to hear George’s group twice live, once in Perugia (Umbria Jazz) – I didn’t get it at all then – but at the second time in London (the 80th Birthday concert), I was blown away. I ended up backstage at the Barbican, joined the orderly line to shake his hand, as if by remote control. When it was my turn I blurbed out in my finest Cockney/German accent: “George, I loved the concert”. The reply came without delay: “Yea, the Concept” (and a silent “Next”).
So I went back to the book. Slowly I started to appreciate the strange beauty of his written language, esoteric, sometimes detailed sometimes woofy. I still didn’t understand too much, although one ting became clear: All 12 notes are possible! You can have a major third on a minor chord, even a flat 9 on a major chord. I know ‘mistakes’ often sound great but here someone is showing a conscious path for embedding all kinds of wrong-sounding notes in beautifully, mysterious sounding lines. And this can work over chord changes (for ex Ezz-thetic) or free playing (Chromatic Universe), improvising or composition.
Last year, 60 years after Russell’s first edition, John O’Gallagher published his book 12 Tone Improvisation. A Method for Using Tone Rows in Jazz. In the time between those two books, jazz has travelled safely, freely and dangerously in the chromatic universe, with help from Ornette Coleman’ sharmolodics and Steve Coleman’s symmetrical movement concept, via Jimmy Giuffre’s free counterpoint, Bob Brookmeyer’s pitch modules, Mark Turner’s voice-leading lessons – to name but a few.
Getting started with John’s book, you quickly sense that here we have been given a lens through which to view all kinds of approaches and travel itineraries as one, and moreover, a path to understand and -for the first time- utilise the Webern and the serial composers’ way of thinking in our own, highly improvised music.
Rather than using a number of modes to break down and melody-size the chromatic scale (like Russell), John makes the three-note shape (‘tri-chord’) the basis of the approach. By some mathematical miracle, only 12 different tri-chord combinations are necessary/possible to express the fully chromatic system. The underlying idea is that a consistent intervallic make-up is as strong and convincing to the ear as a traditional tonality. This can replace the normal cadential context, and also – this is great for us trained in changes playing – be put on top of it. By distilling harmony/melody to their essence, John arrives at a way of seeing/hearing that is at once open and complete, and explains his highly original, coherent, motivic, lyrical, and free and grooved playing. Accessing all 12 tones in an organised yet potentially totally improvised way and staying in the flexible rhythmic milieu of our music is something that we thought wasn’t possible – but there it is.
Like a compliment to Russell’s rewriting of Classical music theory to fit jazz, John’s worked out a beautiful way to rewrite a central 20th Century innovation in the Classical tradition to inspire a new direction in jazz improvising, and to open our ears and minds to future sounds, without losing the connection to the dance roots of our own music. That’s pretty much what George Russell predicted in 1960:
“The jazz music of the future? What will it be like? Well, the techniques are going to get more complex, and it will be a challenge for the composer to master the techniques and yet preserve his intuitive approach. And it will be a challenge to the improviser to master the techniques and also preserve the intuitive, earthy dignity of jazz.
Specifically, it’s going to be a pan-rhythmic, pan-tonal age. I think jazz will by-pass atonality because jazz actually has roots in folk music, and folk music is scale-based music; atonality negates the scale. I think that jazz will be intensely chromatic; but you can be chromatic and not atonal. The answer seems to lie in pan-tonality. The basic folk nature of the scales is preserved, and yet, you can be in any number of tonalities at once and/or sequentially, it also creates a very chromatic kind of feeling, so that it’s sort of like being atonal with a Big Bill Broonzy sound. YOU CAN RETAIN THE FUNK.” (George Russell in 1960)
John O’Gallagher’s book out now on Advance Music
George Russell book by Duncan Heining out on Scarecrow Press
John O’Gallagher/Hans Koller/Percy Pursglove/Jeff Williams play
-Birmingham CBSO Centre, Saturday 29th March (TICKETS)
-London, The Oxford in Kentish Town, Monday 31st March (BOOKING INFORMATION)
Special thanks to Jeff Williams