10/02 - Jazz Ambassador Magazine by Rod McBride
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Over fifty years in the making, this revised edition of the Lydian Chromatic
Concept of Tonal Organization has existed, evolving from what has been
described as an elaborate pamphlet in 1953 to a 1959 edition (mine has a
technical appendix dated 1964) which resembles a thesis paper reproduced at a
quick printer, into the massive, collegiate textbook reviewed here. During
that time, the Concept, a complete reworking of Western music theory, has met
with enthusiasm from the likes of Eric Dolphy, John Lewis and Jan Garbarek.
Many of the modal concepts found in many jazz methods are directly descended
from Russell's ground-breaking work-he may have been the first theorist in
some four centuries to really think in terms of modes.
The Concept has also met with hostility or indifference by the vast majority
of musical academics, finding perhaps its only home at the New England
Conservatory through the graces of Gunther Schuller. Yet Mr. Russell has
persisted, making this project his life's work, convinced that without regard
to the acceptance of his ideas, their validity compelled completion of the
The foundations of the Lydian Chromatic Concept are not new, and are in fact
rooted in Pythagorean overtone series adjusted to equal temperament, and
Henricus Glareanus Dodecachordon (published some four centuries before George
Russell took up a formal study of harmony). However, not long after
Glareanus' work, Gioseffo Zarlino undertook to re-prioritize the Church
modes, moving the Ionian mode (major scale in today's terminology) from the
eleventh place to the first. Zarlino is believed the first to assert the m
ajor/minor system most people have studied music theory under ever since.
The major/minor system served the styles of music between the sixteenth and
nineteenth centuries (though Bach, for one, drew heavily upon the Church
modes and rejected Zarlino's restrictive view). Different composers made up
their own exceptions to the rules, thus defining themselves stylistically. By
the time you get to Ravel, Gershwin, Varese, all bets are off. I once had a
college theory teacher explain to me that "you learn the rules, then you
decide which ones you want to break, and that's your style, the rules you
George Russell didn't have the handicap of a college education in music
theory, but he did have the advantage of being personally involved with the
musicians of early bebop: Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Lewis. In
studying the fundamentals of harmony in an environment in which the
major/minor system was under an all-out assault in both popular and classical
music, Russell began to get at the core of a system that explained, in
objective terms, not only the comparatively simple music of Mozart or Brahms,
but all music in equal temperament, from baroque to bebop, from Wagner to
I've had my copy of the 1959 edition for almost fifteen years. I had read it
sporadically, gleaning ideas here and there, skipping on when things got
muddy. I had no guide to lead me though it, and it made numerous assertions
without rigorously proving them. There is no such weakness in the current
edition. A wide variety of music is interpreted through Russell's system,
this first volume focusing entirely on vertical (chord/scale unity) thinking,
with Bach fugues analyzed alongside Coltrane solos. The logical foundation of
the system is laid out, piece by piece.
The first read-through, I kept jotting down notes, "But what about...?" I
would put the book down with my mind racing, trying to argue that there was
an implication that was left out, or a loose end. Inevitably, later pages, as
if telepathically sensing my question, would explain what I hadn't
understood. The biggest obstacles for someone with a solid theory background
is learning to think of modes and their tonics in a different way, using some
terminology unique to Russell and some which is similar or identical to
terminology from traditional study (though not always with the same meaning
they had in those traditions). It's a lot to take in, a lot to digest.
I'm sure that many potential readers of this book will ask, "What do I get
for $125?" The cover price seemed high to me as well, though as I look at my
library of music theory and method books acquired over the last twenty years,
I can say that I not only have more than $125 tied up in them, but without
the coherence thoroughness presented here.
What you get is a remarkably simple explanation of vertical harmonic and
melodic relationships, very easy to understand. Comprehending and applying
the Concept are different things however: it will take all the study you
could put into it for a lifetime-no, actually it would take more than that.
But at each step, it pays dividends, as you start to think in terms of
chordmodes and see avenues through chord changes you hadn't suspected were
there. Most of all, you don't get a book that's designed to help you sound
like its author (I don't know any musicians who don't have a few of those
laying around). It's a cloth-bound hardcover book printed on acid free paper,
clearly written, professionally typeset. All of the rough edges of the 1959
edition are smoothed out and the gaps filled in. You get your money's worth.
The notion that there are twelve distinct chromatic scales rather than one,
is for instance, hard to get your mind until you realize that these chromatic
scales (Lydian Chromatic scales, to be precise) are built from seven vertical
(chord building) scales, each with a defined relationship of consonance or
dissonance from its respective tonic. You start with the Lydian scale, which
any sophisticated improviser knows has the most resolved, unified sound with
a major seventh chord. Then from that seven tone order you add other scales,
all of traditional origins in Western music, to the nine tone order
introduced by adding the Lydian Augmented and Lydian Diminished scales. Keep
going, adding scales which introducing new "outside" tones until you've
reached a twelve tone order with the Auxiliary Diminished Blues scale. This
is relativity applied to music: there is no "right" or "wrong" note, only
sounds which are more "ingoing" or resolved and sounds which are more
I admit the Concept appeals to me not only musically but in terms of my world
view. As Russell puts it, "Freedom is not the absence of law, but rather the
prevalence of a higher objective law superseding the existence of a plethora
of lower, more subjective ones." This is Thomas Paine applied to harmonics.
The higher objective law in this case is the law of Vertical Tonal Gravity.
The physicist Mitchell Feigenbaum used terminology to rate the toughness of a
scientific problem: "obvious" things are things that a trained physicist,
armed with a doctorate and appropriate resources could figure out given
appropriate contemplation and calculation. "Not obvious," was reserved for
things that might merit a Nobel prize. "Deep" is reserved for problems which
are beyond "not obvious." Creating the Lydian Chromatic Concept from scratch,
in my estimation is at least in the "not obvious" category of music theory.
The fruit it yields, however, falls into the "obvious" column in that anyone
who has a fundamental understanding of their instrument and can read music
can, with enough time in the woodshed, get these things under their fingers
and in their ears.
As a radical departure from everything you've been schooled in (if you've had
formal harmony training), the LCCTO is likely to run through the classic
phases of psychological turbulence everyone experiences when long-held
notions are challenged: lack of comprehension, resistance, anger, and
acceptance. If you're going to put the book down before the first three
phases have run though you, it's not the book for you.
The 1959 edition has been borrowed from and expanded on by method book and
theory authors such as Mick Goodrick, David Baker, Jerry Coker, Jimmy Casale,
Gary Campbell and Jerry Greene. With the 2001 edition, applying basic
exercises in patterns, chord building (both stacked and arpeggiated if you
play a chordal instrument), nothing is missing.
Throughout it are anecdotes from Russell's career, working with and
socializing in a circle of musicians who made some of the most dramatic
creative leaps in Western music's history in a remarkably short period of
time. The difference in harmonic sophistication in jazz from 1945 to 1960 is
probably equivalent to the change European music went through between 1600
and 1900. George was right in the thick of it, composing for Dizzy Gillespie,
working with Coltrane, Bill Evans, Eric Dolphy, and the book includes
anecdotes that add interest and perspective to the theory presented.
As I study the LCCTO, it becomes less meaningful to me to think in terms of
what "key" a song is in. Rather than looking at "I Should Care" as a song in
C Major with a bunch of interesting modulations and turnarounds in it, each
chord becomes its own universe with its own unique possibilities for building
or releasing harmonic tension by playing more or less vertically "inside" the
chord of the moment, looking at primary and secondary modal genres. A
challenging way to look at it, but rewarding as well.
To some very advanced players, the Concept may seem to be a way of relearning
what they already know "from the four chord." While there's some truth to
that perspective (as I review my notes from studying with the great John
Elliott, I see many parallels where the primary difference is terminology).
This is not a book for an absolute beginner either, nor will it appeal to the
Jazz Gestapo that asserts the only way to learn to play is to imitate your
(or more likely their) favorite players. To the closed minded (I once heard a
musician say that anyone who had to use the words "lydian chromatic concept"
before they improvised was jive-though this same player held Eric Dolphy in
high esteem, an interesting lack of consistency itself), the book is useless.
For someone who wants to develop their own style of playing over chord
changes or of composing music, the LCCTO offers a rich view of the
possibilities and an organization to keep the vastness of those possibilities
Dolphy enthused of the Concept that it "gives you so much to work with." In
my case, I'm at a place where it gives me so much to work on. This is clearly
not a book for everyone, it is as challenging as it is heterodox. But for the
curious student of composition and improvisation, who has the discipline to
work through it and the flexibility to learn to think differently, the Lydian
Chromatic Concept is without peer.
Rod McBride, Jazz Ambassador Magazine
Used by Permission, © 2002, Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors. Inc.