The 80th Birthday Concert
From Signal to Noise: The Journal of Improvised & Experimental Music - Winter, 2005

by Mark Keresman

Aside from contributing to the late 1940s orchestras of Dizzy Gillespie and Artie Shaw, George Russell—composer, arranger, pianist, bandleader, and theorist—had a major impact on jazz via his concept of improvisation based on scales instead of chord changes. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and lots of jazz from the 50s and 60s—directly or indirectly—owes Mr. Russell a great karmic/existential/literal debt. Besides, many of Russell's '50s & early '60s albums (many available on Riverside/Fantasy) are among the best post-bop jazz discs ever. In the 60s, while living in Sweden, Russell "discovered" Jan Garbarek and Terje Rypdal, giving them their first recorded exposure. Recorded live during a 2003 (presumably European) tour, 80th Birthday Concert presents a magnificent retrospective of Russell's post '60s works. "The African Game" (originally recorded for Blue Norte in the '80s) is an ambitious suite suggesting humankind's genesis from an African (though not Afrocentric) perspective. Russell doesn't attempt to directly replicate or evoke Africam music, but, like Duke Ellington and Gil Evans, he works in the inspiration(s) of African influences into a long-form, almost symphonic (think Mahler and Copeland) composition. "Game" encompasses aspects of funk, rock (some great fuzz-y electric guitar within), Western European classical, swing, bop and free, but subtly and very melodiously. Russell & company's cover of Miles' "So What" is a legnthy, loping, plaintive-to-swinging-to-impishly-funky tribute to the Prince of Darkness. This two-CD set is an exemplar of remarkable composition, exceptional (but never "difficult") large-group jazz arrangements and inspired, very concise soloing.