Last November, the Trinity Laban Jazz Orchestra (TLJO) spent three nights celebrating the 85th birthday of composer/arranger Mike Gibbs (reviewed by Patrick Hadfield) as part of the 2022 EFG London Jazz Festival. Continuing on in a similar theme, they returned to the Vortex stage last night for a celebration of the equally influential composer/arranger, the late George Russell, whose 100th birthday would have been last Friday. Review by Charles Rees
Composer, arranger, pianist, author and musical theorist George Russell is one of the more undersung figures in the development of post-bebop jazz, playing an important role alongside such names as Gil Evans, Bill Evans and Gunther Schuller. His most famous offering came in the form of a book published in 1953, Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, which postulates an alternative to the European method of organising harmony and tonality, highly influential among jazz musicians to this day and especially Miles Davis. Russell also maintained a steady output of recordings throughout his career, most notably New York, N.Y. (1959) and Jazz in the Space Age (1960), and was a seminal figure in both the American and European jazz scenes for most of his professional life up to his death in 2009.
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The idea to celebrate his legacy originated with Scottish writer and trumpeter, the late Ian Carr. But Carr, who was immersed in his research into Miles Davis at the time, would soon drop the idea, with it passing instead to Duncan Heining… George Russell: The Story of an American Composer was published in 2009, followed up by a substantially revised new edition in 2020. Heining had intended to deliver a brief lecture in advance of TLJO’s performance, but due to a transport mishap, that duty ended up falling to Trinity head of jazz Hans Koller. An accomplished composer/arranger well-versed in the music and teachings of George Russell, Koller delivered an impromptu dive into Russell’s life and music that was both entertaining and comprehensive, connecting with an audience seemingly unaware for the most part about Russell’s place in history.
TLJO’s performance was based on Russell’s 1972 piece and album, Living Time. Though featuring an all-star band including such names as Bill Evans, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter, Sam Rivers, Tony Williams and Jimmy Giuffre, the recording was widely panned by critics; most famously by Scott Yanow, who described the music as being ‘rather dull and surprisingly forgettable’. Over the following forty years, Living Time faded into obscurity but nevertheless developed a cult following during that time. Its ultimate legacy was the formation by Russell of the Living Time Orchestra, comprised of both American and European performers such as Andy Sheppard, Mike Walker and Steve Lodder. Interesting side note: Lodder was in attendance last night watching his son, hornist Louis Lodder, in the band.
While it was Koller’s idea to recreate the Living Time recording for this performance, most of the credit must go to pianist Deschanel Gordon, who transcribed all eight “events” of the piece in immense detail and led the rehearsals in advance of the concert. As the band’s featured guest, he also performed the role of Bill Evans admirably. Special mention should also go to the conductor Marty Gionis, a fourth-year student at Trinity, to whom fell the monumental task of keeping the many different elements of the piece together and flowing; he did a stellar job. In general, the sound of the band was exceptional. Not to mention the recreation of the source material was striking from start to finish. A fitting way to celebrate the centenary of one of jazz’s finest.
Full list of performers is as follows: Deschanel Gordon (piano), Ruta Sipola (flute), Domi Kosztolanszki (tenor & flute), Ruben Ross, Kaz Hamilton (tenors), Jacob Wilson (bass clarinet), Christie Smith, Alex Polack, Mejedi Owusu, Tom Stringer (trumpets), Louis Lodder (French horn), Matt Seddon (tuba), Tom Stephenson, Danny Piers (keyboards), Barney Anderson (guitar), Kobe Heath (electric bass), Kielan Sheard (upright bass), Ruben Logan, Sacha Harlan, Chiara Spigariol (drums & percussion) and Marty Gionis (conductor)