George Russell and the Conundrum of Large Group Jazz

Small Groups vs. Larger Groups in Jazz: Issues for me, and for others

I have been listening to George Russell’s music of late. A symposium on his life that Jerome Harris led last month piqued my curiosity, and when I began to dig deeper I discovered a treasure trove, cd after cd of fascinating music. The fact that I’d missed so much of his work was dumbfounding. If I, who profess to be a serious jazz composer, haven’t heard much of Russell’s work, who has?

The reasons are many- however, I want to focus on his work, in particular the sextet and septet music, and its implications on my own work, rather than the question of why one of the most important jazz composers of all time has been hiding in plain sight.

His cd’s Ezzthetic, Stratusphunk, Live at Bremen, and Jazz Workshop, all from 1959 through 1964 are marvels of innovation and balance. Russell was not so much inventing a new language (as Ornette did) but adding layers of nuance and complexity to existing norms. There are a few particulars that intrigue me:

  1. His written material, sometimes through-composed, always continues beyond the “head”, the main motifs, into and through the solo sections. He obviously thinks like a big band composer in small group settings. Background horn lines frame the soloist, tempos change as solo sections progress, counterpoint is added to a mid-piece melody, and the ending theme is not always a replica of the beginning. All of this keeps the interest level high, while never interfering with the feeling of spontaneity in the solos. I find Barry Galbraith’s guitar work on Jazz Workshop particularly beguiling. Russell wrote him into the ensemble in ways that had rarely if ever been done with guitar. Jim Hall’s parts in Guiffre’s trios have a similar bent, but frankly, Russell’s guitar writing sounds more advanced at this point, if one were to compare their output.
  2. His harmony (which is perhaps his best known contribution to jazz via the Lydian Theory book) is never predictable, often spiced with dissonance, mysteriously original, and thoroughly invigorating. The melodic material seems to leap out from the players’ horns, urgent, edgy, yet with an austere beauty.
  3. The rhythm section crackles with swinging authority. This is not music just for the brain, the body is involved as well. Certainly Russell’s use of rhythm at this time is less interesting and advanced than the ensemble writing and harmony; nonetheless it is an important aspect of what makes this music so exciting. It’s interesting to note the 5/4 opening section of “Ye Hypocrite, Ye Beezlebulb.” While not exactly radical, it presages developments to come.
  4. Short solos! Because it is a sextet with three soloists, whether Dolphy, David Baker, Dave Young or others, the solos are relatively brief, not just in the studio, but live. Plus, the solos seem tethered to the writing, not arbitrary. What a relief this is to the listener. We are hearing a true composition, where the timing of the solos weighs in just right against the pull of the written material. Too much soloing deadens so much jazz for me. Many of my friends feel this way, too. It is sort of an open secret, yet we all continually find ourselves in situations where it continues to happen. I know this is an confrontational thing to say. But many long solos, except in the hands of a master, have little development, and are too often macho displays of athleticism in my opinion. To be clear, I am not being stupid enough to put down “Chasin’ the ‘Trane”, but I wonder if ‘Trane’s way of playing, which of course gave rise to a sea change in jazz, is as relevant today as it was then? Perhaps it’s a matter of taste. What I find most off-putting is when one must suffer through multiple long solos in one piece over the course of a whole set! It’s often feels as if the idea of balance and timing, so central to a classical composer, is traded for “self-expression” and a certain freedom. However, self-expression is not always expressive and freedom doesn’t always feel free. Where is the happy medium? Russell does a good job finding it.
  5. Russell tends to compose episodically, like any good classical composer. Surprising intro’s, interludes, tempo and meter changes, as well as orchestration choices all elevate the music. There are jazz composers doing the same now with smaller groups, but it’s surprising just how rare it is.

What does this all add up to? For me it adds up to a small but important life change. Russell is a model in that he chose to continue to write for and perform with groups that ranged from 6 pieces to more than twenty pieces. He heard music this way and he stuck with it despite the diminishment of performing opportunities. He never wrote trio or quartet music just so he could tour, where he would have been forced into the role of featured soloist, where the layers of counterpoint, the three or four part harmonies were sacrificed in favor of a more improvised, less notated, setting.

I, however, have often sacrificed the live music that I hear in my head for expediency. The reasons are almost entirely economic. When I tour Europe I am never paid enough to bring more than four people. You will look long and hard to find any groups larger than a quintet, featuring band leaders with a similar or even higher profile than I, who can book a two week tour. Sure, a few dates might crop up, but that’s about it. Hardly enough to hang your hat on! I am forced to play music written for a sextet with four folks.

It works like this: the best non-festival gigs one can possibly hope for only pay enough for a quartet. There is a kind of “norm” that has been established, where a certain pay-scale is expected, and more is rarely possible. A bandleader must choose between not touring or touring with a small group. The result? An enormous loss for jazz. For me, personally, it means my music often ends up sounding less interesting than it could. One simply cannot justify losing thousands of dollars by bringing along a sixth or seventh person

Why is this so? How have we allowed ourselves to be forced to squeeze our creativity into what has become a predictable format? Blame is tough to assess. It’s a question worth asking, that’s all I know.

I don’t deny the value of what one might call the “blueprint” for a small jazz ensemble. Some of our greatest music has been passed down by quartets led by Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Monk, and so many others, where a melody is played, there are solos by sax and piano, maybe the bass, and then the head is played out. This structure is fundamental to our history, and will continue to bear fruit for a long time.

But…it’s being WAY overdone. It is too often the fallback position. Just how many “great” solos is one supposed to suffer through in any given week in New York to justify the sameness of the orchestration? We do it because it makes life easy, it’s our roots, and because it’s fun, but also because we have been thrust into the ghetto of the jazz pay scale for so long. And I wonder if we are also a bit lazy? Are our aspirations as simple as blowing over another well-written melody, or if we could, would we lean more towards our writing and less towards our improvising for select projects? Sure many jazz musicians have multiple projects, often involving interesting instrumental or conceptual choices. However, these group rarely play live.

Can you imagine a world where classical music was almost exclusively made by quartets? With the SAME instrumentation everytime? Hell no! In classical music there is an enormous range of live instrumentation, but the same is not true for jazz. There is institutional support for classical mid-size and large ensembles in schools and concert halls. I can only summon a couple of venues to mind that do the same for jazz- Lincoln Center being one. However, devoted music omnivore that I am, I have almost NEVER been to Lincoln Center, as the programming is far too tepid for my taste

So what to do?

It’s not as if I don’t play with brilliant musicians in a quartet setting. And it’s not as if we don’t come up with some wonderful moments. However, I HEAR larger ensembles, and I am sure other composers feel the same way. My best work exemplifies characteristics that I have just extolled in George Russell’s work. I, like him, enjoy placing other soloists than myself at the forefront.

I have come to the indisputable, but somewhat disheartening conclusion that I have to perform less. In return, when I do perform, the music will fully declare my intentions. The thing is, I love to play. I love to play so much that I have been willing to sacrifice compositional and ensemble ideals. I have projects that seemed plausible to present with smaller groups- esp. Free Country. But as one gets older, one’s focus damn well better get stronger. For me that means writing for larger groups, whether it leads towards a deficit of live performance or not. Do I worry about how I will develop the music if it is not played often enough? Yes. Still, I have to write what I hear.

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