A quick note before getting to George Russell. Although I’m a big fan—and consumer—of LP reissues, it sometimes seems as if a sizeable segment of the reissue market consists of a relatively limited selection of titles sanctified by an audio guru or denizens of a “best of” list compiled by presumably informed reviewers (or both). In some cases, these discs are reissues of LPs that have already been reissued—and, more than occasionally, LPs that have been reissued a few times (viz., Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue). I’m not really complaining, because I know that the folks responsible for producing reissues aren’t altruists trading choruses of kumbaya; they’re interested in selling the LPs.
So it’s no surprise they’re attracted to titles that have a reasonable likelihood of generating the appropriate response on the part of the vinyl-loving public, i.e., reaching for the old credit card.
Words and Photos by Darryl Lindberg
For my part, though, I appreciate reissues, especially those of less well-known discs, many of which are discs that I’d never be able to unearth in original form. Or even if I can find (or already have) an original, a reissue may be in a superior format (45 rpm), far less abused, or simply a better realization of the original disc. However, even though I have a lot of shelf space, it’s still finite, which leads me to try to curb my natural acquisitive proclivities to correspond with the available real estate—unless, of course, if I can rationalize the purchase (ha!).
That’s why when I see a reissue of a disc that’s relatively obscure in its original form but has musical and historic interest I scoop it up (post rationalization). Such was the case with the Universal Music/Acoustic Sounds’ reissue of George Russell’s New York, N.Y., originally released on (American) Decca in 1959.
Before I get into the LP, let me just say a few words about George Russell (1923-2009). This guy was an instrumentalist, composer, educator, arranger, and, probably most importantly, a music theorist. His influence on the pack of 1950s-60s jazz giants is irrefutable, yet his own recorded legacy doesn’t get a great deal of attention.
I’ve been fascinated by George Russell ever since I picked up his magnum opus, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Development. I’m not saying I gained any more than a rudimentary grasp of Russell’s musical theory—certainly not enough to put it into practice—however, those who had the chops sure embraced it. You might say that the Lydian Concept received the Good Jazz Housekeeping seal of approval from players from the time of its inception to the present.
George Russell may have had a low profile with the general public, but his artistry was acknowledged by many heavy hitters in the arts world. Just to cite a few of his awards and accolades, Russell received the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, named National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Master, elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Swedish Academy, received two Guggenheim Fellowships, awarded the Oscar du Disque de Jazz, received the Guardian Award, awarded six NEA Music Fellowships, won the American Music Award; there’s more, but I think you get the idea.
New York, N.Y. is what I’d call, in a loose sense, a concept album, featuring music (of course) and narration. I don’t want to be a spoiler, but the concept is…New York. The music consists of three George Russell originals and three standards, all arranged by Russell. The folks gracing this disc include some of the greatest of the era, or any era, to wit: Bob Brookmeyer, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Art Farmer, Benny Golson, Phil Woods—and those are only the guys listed on the cover! There’s also Doc Severinsen, Milt Hinton, Max Roach, and Barry Galbraith, among others.
The narration is by Jon Hendricks, a highly regarded singer and lyrist, probably best known for scat singing. For this gig, he’s engaging in what I’d term “proto rap,” or maybe “paleo rap.” I’ll defer to our younger readers—and that would probably include everyone eyeballing this article except for yours truly—to categorize Hendricks’ contribution.
As you’d guess from the number of musicians I’ve named, we’re talking about “big band” music here, but not in the Ellington or Basie or swing era mode; it’s definitely modern and, for lack of a better word, hip. From the first cut, “Manhattan” (a Rodgers and Hart tune), you’re treated to Russell’s outstanding arrangements. In each number, George Russell gives the soloists plenty of space to stretch out. The album’s players shift somewhat from cut to cut, so the “Personnel and Soloists” inset on the back of the album is helpful to keep track of who’s who—although it’d be difficult not to recognize Coltrane soloing on “Manhattan.”
The three George Russell compositions (“Big City Blues,” “Manhatta-Rico,” and “A Helluva Town”) showcase his gift for originality, but they’re clearly jazz tunes, not academic exercises masquerading as jazz. And that reminds me–in case you’re unsure whether or not you’ll be able to appreciate the content of this disc, it’s almost a cinch that you shouldn’t be concerned. The music on the album is most assuredly not of the variety that leads a reviewer to use descriptions such as, “challenging,” “difficult,” “thorny,” “worth the effort,” or the dreaded, “after repeated playing, I can begin to understand.” Nor does the music require extensive listening notes; it eloquently speaks for itself. Just let it speak to you.
The George Russell Sound
And what about the sound? I would say it’s commendably satisfying, although it’s a little odd in terms of the soundstage (see below). However, the fact is that if you’re looking for a demonstration disc in the vein of the RCA/Reiner The Pines of Rome (1S/1S pressing or not), this isn’t it. The music and musicians are the draws here. Nevertheless, New York, N.Y. is what I’d call an honest recording: the instruments sound natural and aren’t tarted up with excessive reverb or other effects. Even the piano’s reasonably well-recorded for an LP of this vintage; still somewhat muffled, but hey, it’s Bill Evans, so I can live with it!
The soundstage is quite wide, if not particularly deep. But here’s the most noticeable indication that this disc is early stereo and deviates from what might be termed audiophile norms: an enormous hole in the center. The left speaker projects instruments; the right channel projects instruments; but there’s almost nothing in the center. With one exception, the center stereo image is reserved for Jon Henderson’s narration, which is quite realistically palpable smack dab in between the speakers.
The one exception is the final cut on side two, George Russell’s “A Helluva Town,” featuring the great Max Roach. Roach’s drums are spread across the entire soundstage (including the center); it’s as if old Max had a drum kit that was about nine feet wide—and he had arms to match. Since the key feature of this number is Roach’s drum solo, it’s understandable he’d take center (and left and right) stage. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Ryan Smith did the mastering at Sterling Sound, so you can bet every molecule of music’s been wrung out of the tapes. And the vinyl’s as flat and quiet as you’d expect from Acoustic Sounds. The packaging is outstanding, too. You might even say the laminated gatefold is luxurious. All in all, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with any aspect of the disc’s production.
George Russell: The Takeaway
It almost goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: the joint venture of Universal Music and Acoustic Sounds should be loudly applauded for reissuing this LP. It’s a disc that captures some of the greatest jazz musicians of the era cavorting with one of the greatest jazz theorists of the era. And that’s reason enough to give it this George Russell LP a spin.
— Darryl Lindberg