Revinylization #16: George Russell's New York, N.Y.

George Russell was a major innovator in modern jazz: a pianist-composer-theoretician who profoundly influenced Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Gil Evans, and the "modal revolution" that propelled so much music of the 1960s and beyond. But he's largely been forgotten. He was also the leader of ensembles, big and small, on more than two dozen albums. A few of those albums are acknowledged masterpieces, but they too have been overshadowed by some of his acolytes' classics.

The most ambitious of Russell's masterworks is New York, N.Y., which was recorded in the fall of 1958 and released on Decca in 1959—the same year as Miles's Kind of Blue and Trane's Giant Steps. So it is good to see it come back to life in this gorgeous gatefold-packaged reissue, mastered from the original analog tapes, and pressed on 180gm QRP vinyl as part of Universal Music's joint venture with Chad Kassem's Acoustic Sounds.

Russell's innovation was to base improvisation not on chords—the essence of bebop, the predominant form of jazz at the time—but on scales, aka modes. The distinction was hardly academic. When a bebop musician improvised, the chord changes served as a compass, pointing the direction to the next bar or phrase. This sequence would last 12 bars, at which point the musicians finish their solo or start over again, with variations. Improvising on scales changed everything. The compass was thrown out the window, or its needle started spinning in multiple directions. You could play all the notes of the scale, not just those that comprised the chord. As Russell put it, "you are free to do anything" (the italics were his) "as long as you know where home is." The trick was to fuse freedom with discipline so that what you played sounded neither chaotic nor too controlled, and to wind up where you started.

This is the remarkable accomplishment of Russell's greatest music. It is composed music; it outlines a structure for improvisation, but the structure, as he put it, "provides the possibilities. It is for the musician to sing his own song really, without having to meet the deadline of a particular chord." New York, N.Y. was recorded about halfway between the two albums that launched Miles Davis on his modal path—Milestones and Kind of Blue—and it features the two most trailblazing members of Miles's sextet at the time: Coltrane and pianist Bill Evans. Coltrane plays on just one track, a cover of Rodgers & Hart's "Manhattan," but you hear the glimmers of the style he'd perfect on Kind of Blue: the frantically fast, preternaturally precise "sheets of sound" that he'd already developed on Blue Trane, but, unshackled from "the deadline of a particular chord," he could vary his pace and focus more on melody and mood. He comes off lyrical and lithe. Evans, who's on all five tracks (he'd been in Russell's band before joining Miles's), evokes his familiarly Ravelian colors but with a more fleeting touch.

New York, N.Y. is a big band record—13 topnotch musicians traversing Russell's scores, which are unlike any jazz orchestral scores of the time. There are, inevitably, shades of Ellington, Basie, Evans, and Davis's "birth of the cool" nonet (in which Russell played a role), but the rhythms shift more sharply, the harmonies mesh minor with major, dissonant with consonant, yet the underlying melodies unfold in seamless propulsion.

The album's conceit is a jazz tour of New York, each song introduced by singer Jon Hendricks, reciting high-spirited beat-poem tributes to the city of blues and dues. These interludes are charming and not at all pretentious. After "Manhattan" come two Russell compositions: "Big City Blues," with a fluid, swinging solo by tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, and "Manhattan-Rico," with blazing Latin percussion (Russell had written "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop" for Dizzy Gillespie's big band), an "East Side Medley" of "Autumn in New York" and "How About You" (with Evans and trumpeter Art Farmer soloing), and Russell's "A Helluva Town" (with a drum solo by Max Roach).

How does it sound? Generally, very good: the soloists and rhythm section are vivid, palpable; bass lines (by Milt Hinton or George Duvivier) are clear, plucky, and woody; the drumheads pound, the cymbals shimmer. Two caveats. First, as with many (but far from all) early stereo recordings, the instruments are crowded into the left speaker and the right speaker, except for Hendricks, who narrates upfront and center, and the nonsoloing horn players, who are spread a bit in the center to the rear. (There's a convincing illusion of depth.) Second, when those nonsoloing horn players blow loud, the engineer (unidentified) hits the compression button; the dynamics don't bloom. (It's better than distortion, but still ....) These flaws, at times annoying, don't disrupt the pleasure. The tapes were otherwise fine to begin with, the mastering by Ryan Smith of Sterling Sound is probably as good as possible—this LP sounds much better than previous reissues—and the music overwhelms any flaws.

Maybe this will trigger a George Russell renaissance. I'd be very keen to hear a great pressing of The Jazz Workshop, his 1957 debut on RCA with Bill Evans and Art Farmer, or, even more, Ezz-thetics, his 1961 sextet on Riverside featuring Eric Dolphy. Anyone?

Allen Fant's picture

Excellent review! FK
Without question, 1959, was the best year in Jazz history.