10 Tracks I Can't Do Without

10 Tracks by George Russell I Can’t Do Without… by Ken Schaphorst

In the latest of our series where musicians write about their inspirations and idols, Ken Schaphorst, composer, performer, educator – fuller biography below (*) – writes about George Russell (1923-2009). Ken Schaphorst will direct a concert to mark the George Russell centenary at NEC in Boston on 19 October

Ken Schaphorst writes:

George Russell was a leader in several key developments in the history of jazz. His innovative compositions for jazz artists such as Benny Carter, Buddy DeFranco, Bill Evans and Dizzy Gillespie were landmarks in the development of modern jazz composition. And George was the first jazz musician to see the potential in updating the system of modes developed in Gregorian chant in medieval times. George’s theory, the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, first published in 1953, was the first theoretical work in the history of jazz, describing the logical connections between chords and scales used widely in jazz education today. And George’s theory inspired many of his friends and contemporaries such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Bill Evans to compose and improvise music that would have never been created without George’s influence. Without George Russell, there would be no Kind of Blue. When George began teaching at NEC in 1969, he brought this wealth of knowledge and experience to his interactions with students. His interest in theory, composition and creativity laid the foundation for NEC’s innovative approach to teaching jazz.

Ken Schaphorst and George Russell. Photo courtesy of NEC

I was lucky enough to work with George when I started teaching at NEC in 2001. And since I was intimidated by George during my time as a student at NEC in the 1980’s, I was a bit shocked when George went out of his way to encourage me personally, suggesting that I perform more of my own music with the NEC Jazz Orchestra. On October 19, I will be conducting the NEC Jazz Orchestra in a celebration of George’s 100th Birthday, performing “All About Rosie,” “Ezz-thetic,” “Stratusphunk,” and parts of “The African Game.”

1. Cubano Be, Cubano Bop (1947)

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George Russell wrote “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop” for Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, including what might be the first recorded example of traditional Afro-Cuban religious music in the interlude led by Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo. Premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1947, it was one of the first compositions mixing Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz.

2. A Bird in Igor’s Yard (1949)

Buddy DeFranco recorded Russell’s A Bird in Igor’s Yard in 1949, combining the influences of Charlie Parker and Igor Stravinsky.

3. Concerto for Billy the Kid (1956)

“Concerto for Billy the Kid” is one of the first pieces that George wrote to feature the unique talents of Bill Evans, recorded on George’s debut recording, The Jazz Workshop in 1956, along with Art Farmer and Milt Hinton. The solo section is based on the changes to “I’ll Remember April.”

4. All About Rosie (1957)

At the Brandeis University Festival for the Arts in 1957, six new pieces were commissioned and premiered and then recorded in the studio shortly afterwards. Including three “classical” composers (Milton Babbitt, Gunther Schuller and Harold Shapero) and three “jazz” composers (Jimmy Giuffre, Charles Mingus and George Russell), the resulting recording Modern Jazz Concertwas released in 1958. George Russell’s contribution, “All About Rosie,” is one of his most celebrated pieces, featuring another impressive solo by Bill Evans.

5. Manhattan (1959)

New York, New York features a who’s who of the New York jazz scene in the late 1950s. “Manhattan” is the first track, featuring Jon Hendricks and Max Roach.

6. Stratusphunk (1960)

Gil Evans arranged George’s “Stratusphunk” for his Impulse recording, Out of the Cool. The melody was inspired by George’s close friend Miles Davis.

7. Ezz-Thetic (1961)

A tribute to the boxer Ezzard Charles, “Ezz-Thetic” was first recorded by Lee Konitz in 1951, with Miles Davis. It’s one of George’s most complex and intriguing lines, based on the chords to “Love for Sale.” I’ve chosen the sextet performance featuring Don Ellis, Eric Dolphy, David Baker, Steve Swallow, Joe Hunt and George on piano.

8. You Are My Sunshine (1962)

In another sextet performance, this time with vocalist Sheila Jordan, George completely transforms the iconic American song, without losing its soulful roots.

9. African Game, The Paleolithic Game (1983)

Under his guidance, I conducted the NEC Jazz Orchestra’s performance of “The African Game” in December, 2003, in a celebration of George’s 80th birthday. And when the band performed that piece again at the 2004 IAJE Conference in New York, I was struck by how many jazz legends were there in the room, paying respect to George and his legacy. I’m looking forward to performing most of “The African Game” again with the NEC Jazz Orchestra on October 19 in honor of George Russell’s centennial. It’s been wonderful to rehearse that music again, and feel George’s powerful spirit. This track features the amazing George Garzone on tenor saxophone.

10. It’s About Time, Part Two (1996)

This is another piece I performed with George towards the end of his life. I love the groove towards the end. It was always fun to play this one.

(*) Ken Schaphorst is a composer, performer, and educator currently serving as co-chair of the Jazz Studies Department at New England Conservatory in Boston where he teaches courses in jazz composition, arranging, theory and analysis and directs the NEC Jazz Orchestra. He is a founding member of the Jazz Composers Alliance, a Boston-based non-profit promoting new music in the jazz idiom since 1985. Schaphorst studied at Swarthmore College, New England Conservatory, and Boston University, where he received the Doctor of Musical Arts. Schaphorst has received numerous awards including Composition Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wisconsin Arts Board, as well as Meet the Composer Grants. He won the Achievement Award for Jazz Education from DownBeat magazine, and has released seven highly acclaimed recordings as a leader. (Page at NEC website)

LINK: The George Russell Centenary Concert at NEC

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