Ohio-born pianist George Russell (1923), the son of a white father and a black mother, was the apostle of modal jazz.
The moment he landed in New York he showed his skills as a composer,
penning Cubano Be Cubano Bop (september 1947) for Dizzy Gillespie
and A Bird in Igor's Yard (april 1949) for Buddy DeFranco.
In 1953 he published his influential theory of modal jazz (playing based on modes rather than harmonies) and he applied his theories of jazz composition
on his first album as a leader, Jazz Workshop (october 1956), for a sextet with
trumpeter Art Farmer, altoist Hal McKusick, guitarist Barry Galbraith and pianist Bill Evans, containing the brief Concerto for Billy the Kid,
Round Johnny Rondo, Ezz-thetic, Witch Hunt,
Knights of the Steamtable and Ye Hypocrite Ye Beelzebub.
In these three-four minute pieces he demonstrated his focus on "vertical" form
(the relationship between chords and scales), letting his cohorts do most of
He contributed to third-stream music with the suite for orchestra All About Rosie (june 1957).
All his subsequent albums were highly innovative. The concept album
New York New York (march 1959) contained two lengthy Russell compositions,
Big City Blues and Manhattan Rico, performed by an all-star
cast of John Coltrane on tenor,
Bob Brookmeyer on trombone, Art Farmer on trumpet,
Bill Evans on piano, Max Roach on drums, Milt Hinton on bass,
and the pioneering raps of poet Jon Hendricks.
The progression towards the big-band format was completed by
Jazz in the Space Age (august 1960).
An orchestra with two pianists (Bill Evans and Paul Bley) performed Russell's
three-movement suite Chromatic Universe, the ten-minute
The Lydiot (that sounds like a series of variations on the previous
the haunting Waltz From Outer Space and especially
the ambitious 13-minute modal exploration Dimensions.
If Stratusphunk (october 1960) was perhaps too academic (despite Stratusphunk),
Ezz-thetics (may 1961) topped anything he had done before, despite including
only three original Russell compositions.
Trumpeter Don Ellis, trombonist Dave Baker,
clarinetist Eric Dolphy, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Joe Hunt
struck an eerie balance between bebop, cool jazz and free jazz
(particularly in Ezz-thetics).
A septet with Ellis, Baker and Swallow recorded the complex
Blues In Orbit and Stratus Seekers, the highlights of
Stratus Seekers (january 1962).
After the inferior Outer View (august 1962)
that contained the title-track and a cover of Jimmie Davis' country hit
You Are My Sunshine sung by Sheila Jordan,
Russell relocated to Scandinavia and turned to extended multi-stylistic works
for orchestra implementing his idea of vertical form, such as
the 28-minute Othello Ballet Suite and the
Electronic Organ Sonata No. 1, collected on
Othello Ballet Suite (november 1967),
and especially the
Electronic Sonata For Souls Loved By Nature (april 1969), his masterpiece,
a chaotic fusion of jazz, classical, ethnic, blues and electronic music,
performed by an enthusiastic set of players (including trumpeter Manfred Schoof, tenor saxophonist Jan Garbarek, guitarist Terje Rypdal, drummer John Christensen).
A new version in three movements (recorded in october 1970) appeared on Essence (1971), together
with the Concerto for Self-Accompanied Guitar (january 1968).
The four-movement mass Listen to the Silence (june 1971) was scored for choir, organ, trumpet, tenor saxophone (Jan Garbarek), electric guitar (Terje Rypdal), electric piano (Bobo Stenson), bass and percussion.
Living Time (may 1972) was a concept album on the stages of human life
conceived together with Bill Evans (re-recorded in november 1995 for It's About Time), and it became the name of Russell's new
orchestra, that kept expanding its stylistic range to absorb blues, rock, funk,
jazz-rock (a genre that he had pioneered on Jazz Workshop, a decade before the term was invented), classical, electronic and ethnic elements.
If possible, subsequent works were even more ambitious:
the five-movement Vertical Form 6 (march 1977),
Time Spiral, off So What (june 1983),
the nine-movement The African Game (june 1983), devoted to the evolution of the human species,
George Russell died in july 2009.