The news of George Russell’s passing sent me to my LP stacks for my 1962 reissue (jazz reissues in 1962!) of The Jazz Workshop. The original was released in 1957, a year some regard as the apogee of the music. This record doesn’t have the cachet of Mingus’ tectonic Tijuana Moods, Miles Davis’ Miles Ahead or even Max Roach’s Jazz in 3/4 Time, all of which were released that year, but it was just as predictive of the music’s future direction.
Like Mingus, Russell loved polyphony and formal exploration, though the busily interwoven lines of Russell’s “Round Johnny Rondo,” owe more to West Coast cool and Bach than they do to Mingus’ roots in trad jazz and Ellington. Russell and Miles frequented Gil Evans basement, and Workshop employed players from Miles’ past (altoist Hal McKusick) and future (Bill Evans). And it’s worthwhile to remember that Russell was a drummer (he plays wooden drums on one cut of The Jazz Workshop) who was bumped from the chair in Benny Carter’s band by no less than Roach himself.
George Russell’s greatest contribution to jazz (to music, really; his influence is broader than that) is his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, a theory I couldn’t hope to explain even if I understood it (I don’t). Needless to say that Russell opened doors to harmony that giants would stride through giants named Davis, Coltrane and Evans. Russell spent many of his mature years in Scandinavia, far from the jazz spotlight, but he belongs in its glow, even though he’s no longer around to enjoy it.