The 80th Birthday Concert
From Jazziz Magazine - December, 2005

by Fernando Gonzalez

If original thinking, serious work, and perseverance were the true requisites of fame and fortune, then composer, bandleader, educator, and theoretician George Russell would be the Michael Jordan of jazz. He isn’t. But his musical and philosophical ideas – first systematized in 1953 in his tome Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization – opened the way for Miles Davis and John Coltrane, two of his contemporaries and friends, to explore modal music. (Russell also composed influential pieces such as “Cubana Be/Cubana Bop,” which Dizzy Gillespie recorded, “All About Rosie, “ and “Ezz-thetic.”)

Featuring an augmented big band led by Russell and drawing from live recordings from a 2003 tour, The 80th Birthday Concert revisits some of the composer’s most ambitious works. His 1968 “Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved By Nature” (which in its original recording featured then –unknowns Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, and Jon Christensen) and his 1983 “The African Game” – which attempts nothing less than telling the story of evolution – both blend, at various times, bop, free jazz, rock, funk, electronics, and prerecorded tapes. The pieces are still stunners. In Russell’s modal universe, developments on a piece emerge from, and result on, scales (think melodies) as well as dynamic, textural, and rhythmic variations. It gives the music a distinct intensity and drive. Moreover, in Russell’s hands, the sum result is a peculiar mix of subtlety and muscle, knotty reasoning and earthy, joyous grooves. As it turns out The 80th Birthday Concert is quite a gift.