“The one entrée to the group was talent…people who later on were talented were welcomed. It didn’t last, but it was the prevailing feeling at the time, a feeling of great openness, you know. I don’t know what the cause of that was particularly, but, one thing, it was like Charlie Parker was the center of that. And I think it was his spirit, and generous spirit, that encouraged very much this community feeling around what was happening mainly because of him.”
The time is May 1945, the place is New York City, and composer/drummer George Russell had just moved to town from Ohio by way of Chicago. George already knew Max Roach and through him he began hanging out with Bird, Dizzy, Miles Davis, John Lewis and the bebop community, just living and breathing music. His reputation as a musical intellectual was established during long discussions and late-night sessions at the piano with these like-minded musical explorers. By now the 23-year old’s compositions and arrangements were performed by the orchestras of Benny Carter, Earl Hines and others – quite a validation.
Russell had been hospitalized for tuberculosis as a teenager, and in the late summer of 1945 he had a relapse that forced him to stay at St. Joseph’s hospital in the Bronx for 16 months. Two points that Russell brings up when discussing his hospital stay are that Miles, J.J. Johnson and other friends visited occasionally, keeping him in touch with the bebop scene, and that during the last several months of his convalescence he had access to a piano in the hospital’s library. He says he did little else but experiment at the keyboard and think through his musical ideas for almost a year during his slow recovery. In the 1950s these ideas would be organized and published as his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. Russell left the hospital in December of 1946 and went straight back to hanging out on the bebop scene; he rented a room in Max Roach’s mother’s apartment and took composition lessons from Stefan Wolpe.
At this time Dizzy Gillespie was planning a concert at Carnegie Hall in September of 1947, and he hired George to prepare two scores for his big band. He asked Russell to help him prepare a showcase for his Afro-Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, and the resulting collaborative composition – Cubano Be Cubano Bop – is a tour de force combining Pozo’s congas and vocal, Dizzy’s virtuoso ensemble and Russell rich harmonic language tying it all together. The other score was an arrangement of Bird’s most recently recorded original, Relaxin’ at Camarillo, waxed for Dial Records in February 1947. This terrific chart by Russell was never recorded commercially but at least 2 live recordings exist. The first version is from Carnegie Hall on September 29th 1947, and the second version comes from a concert at Cornell University 3 weeks later on October 18th.
It is breathtaking to hear how much abstraction the 23-year-old Russell was able to build into his treatment of Bird’s melody. Tonally, structurally, rhythmically, groove-wise; this piece of music is never locked in to simply being a 4/4 blues in F.
The chart gets under way with a bass line in 3 against the Afro-Cuban percussion grooving in 4. Then a piano figure reinforces the 4/4 meter, followed by the brass and baritone sax setting up a vamp figure that’s both rhythmically and harmonically unsettled. Unison saxes state Bird’s melody in F (against the prominent G-flat in the lead trumpet!), with the groove settling into 4/4 swing by the 5th measure of the theme.
Notice how Russell seems to start the second melody chorus early, in the 11th measure of the first chorus. He weaves fragments of the tune together in different keys, creating a striking tapestry of shifting tonal centers and rhythmic ambiguity. I’m intrigued by the mix of mute timbres used by the trumpet section. Do I hear buckets, then straights? A wild, kaleidoscopic series of sounds!
Russell keeps this texture going for 12 measures and then suddenly drops us into the 5th measure of the blues form and a swinging groove for James Moody’s improvisation. At the end of Moody’s solo, notice how Russell again seems to start the next idea early, in what would conventionally be the 11th measure of Moody’s second chorus. This time the Afro-Cuban vamp is a background under a solo trumpet melody that’s a variation on the last phrase of Bird’s tune. I’m calling it a “solo” melody but clearly there are 2 trumpets playing alternating phrases above swirling unison saxes playing their own double-time variations on scraps the main theme.
After 9 measures of this texture Russell reprises the sound of the opening ensemble vamp, building in volume and intensity over 16 measures to a cascading, dissonant brass section statement of the opening 4 measures of Bird’s tune. Now Dizzy’s solo starts in the 5th measure of the blues form and continues for a second chorus with some wild bebop backgrounds. A sudden, quieter vamp follows Dizzy’s solo; the trombones and baritone sax play relatively simple backgrounds beneath an odd solo trumpet melody for 6 measures – and suddenly the chart is over.
This ending puzzles me; it seems abrupt and low energy compared to the rest of the arrangement. Before I knew about the 2nd recording from Cornell I always suspected that something was missing, as if some musician(s) missed their entrance and didn’t play. But both versions end the same way, so I’ll accept that this is the ending he wrote. Listen closely to the Cornell recording and you’ll hear that the piano is reprising Bird’s melody while the solo trumpet wanders off into another key. These are terribly low quality recordings; maybe there’s more detail we’re unable to hear. Who knows? Perhaps Russell’s score still exists, or someday another recording might surface, giving us further insight into this intriguing early work.
George Russell would return to Bebop and Bird’s music occasionally during his career as a composer/bandleader, but I’m not aware that he deconstructed and reworked any of Bird’s compositions as thoroughly as he did in 1947 with Relaxin’ At Camarillo.
Here’s a terrific “Round Midnight” from 1961 – Eric Dolphy is SO expressive! Eric Dolphy (alto sax), Don Ellis (tpt), David Baker (tbn), George Russell (p), Steve Swallow (b), Joe Hunt (dms).
Here’s Au Privave from Russell’s working group in 1963. Don Ellis (tpt), Garnett Brown (tbn), Paul Plummer (tnr sax), George Russell (pno), Steve Swallow (bs), Pete La Roca (dms)
Here’s “Sippin’ at Bells” from a 1964 European tour. George Russell (p), Joe Farrell (ts), Thad Jones (tpt), Garnett Brown (tbn), Barre Phillips (b), Al Heath (dr).
The opening quote for this post and the biographical details about George Russell come from Duncan Heining’s fine book, George Russell: The Story of an American Composer published by Scarecrow Press. The book is apparently out of print.