The 80th Birthday Concert
From the Wire Magazine (UK) - December, 2005

by Brian Morton

Though no one made much of it, the 2003 tour marked another important anniversary as well, the half-centenary of George Russell’s hugely influential The Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organization. Unlike the hocus pocus of harmolodics, these are ideas that you can study and apply, and they’ve sunk deep possibly too deep for visibility, into contemporary musical culture, surfacing everywhere from Miles Davis’s ‘new direction’ to Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.’ So why isn’t Russell better known and why wasn’t his birthday tour more of an event, the Gil Evan’s 75th was?

The question’s not quite answered by these four magnificent compositions and arrangements. There’s nothing outwardly forbidding about Russell’s charts. It’s just that, obsessed as we are with small groups we’ve lost the ability to hear the strata of detail, the countervailing movements of scales and harmonic equations in big band music, a bit like you lose your sense of direction and awareness of topography if you never climb out of the car. Russell makes it easy by starting with an excerpt from Listen To The Silence, a mini-concerto for trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg.  His harmonic understanding – or, rather, his Lydian Chromatic understanding – is acute and even in this short lyrical introduction he demonstrates the deep structure of a deceptively straightforward piece.

The orchestra, liberally sprinkled with Brits, proceeds with Electronic Sonata For Soul s Loved By nature, the 1969 suite that helped to launch Jan Garbarek as a superstar. Here, it’s Andy Sheppard who catches the spotlight, two excellent features bracketing fine work from flutist Hiro Honshuku and baritonist/bass clarinetist Pete Hurt. Mikkelborg comes in again toward the end, less certain in a role originally taken on record by Manfred Schoof.

Disc two is dominated Russell’s evolutionary epic The African Game. It’s a less apocalyptic work than, say, Charles Mingus’s Pithecanthropus Erectus. No accident that Russell invokes nature so often. His interest lies in ongoing process rather than packaged eschatology or genre. Read The Lydian Concept alongside D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form and the parallels are unmistakable.

Sheppard again solos prominently, with another fine spot from Mikkelborg on “Consciousness”, a telling cogitation from Chris Biscoe on “Cartesian Man” and a suitably sanguine/questioning coda from keyboardist Steve Lodder on “The Future?” – make of that question mark what you will.

Rounding out the set are a strong, though slightly hurried version of “Its’s About Time” and then Russell’s own clapalong arrangement of Miles Davis’s “So What”, with Mike Walker joining the two main soloists for a well-dressed bow. A shaming amount of modern jazz history is worked through on this album. With Russell’s catalogue in depressing disarray – I reckon only six or seven other things are currently available – it’s an ideal place to start.