- An understated avant-garde jazz album from the polymath theorist that predicted modal jazz.
- Rewind is a review series, published in partnership with Discogs, that dips into electronic music's archives to dust off music from decades past.
When most people think about modal jazz, pioneering greats Miles Davis and John Coltrane might come to mind. But fewer bring up another musician then rubbing elbows with the most original jazz artists of the '50s and '60s, George Russell. To be fair, Russell was a theorist and composer foremost. Best known for writing the Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organization in 1953, his seminal theory book would lay the groundwork for the fledgling modal movement. His theoretical-philosophical contributions to the genre would herald a new branch of improvisational jazz, arranged with scales, rather than the traditional Western chord. Five years after the book hit shelves, Miles Davis, Russell's good friend, released his first full-length attempt at modal jazz. Working only with two diatonic scales, Milestones is today a widely known jazz standard, and was the precursor to 1959's Kind Of Blue, one of the most essential works drawing directly from Russell's teachings. The Lydian Chromatic Concept was like the work of a prophet.
Russell actually owed his initial revelations in part to the gifted trumpeter, in a story he liked to recount. "We were having a session, you know, where musicians trade off ideas, He'd play a chord, 'How do you like that?' 'I like that' I played some chords and he, I think, he liked my harmonic sense and, of course, he was extraordinary you know. But I said, 'What's your aim musically, what do you really wanna do?' And he said, 'I wanna learn all the changes.'" The two musicians would continue to influence each other throughout their careers.
A decade later, modal jazz was yesterday's news and a few musicians progressed into a leftfield realm that caused even the most open-minded to turn up their nose. It was the age of the avant-garde, a divisive trend that catalyzed the experimental eras of Davis, Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, who was famously socked in the mouth by drummer Max Roach after his first New York gig. Jazz suddenly had many names, be it jazz rock, free jazz, cosmic jazz—but a particular futuristic strain of jazz drew vehement contempt from critics: jazz incorporating electronic elements. It was around this time that Russell released Electronic Sonata For Souls Loved By Nature in 1968, often perceived as simultaneously his most ambitious and understated work, the listening experience described by Kodwo Eshun as "growing a third ear."
The album shuffles between live recordings of blues, free jazz, Indian ragas and rock, which were treated electronically, and electronic tapes prepared in Stockholm's Electronic Music Studio. The album centers around Russell's swinging piano bassline, taken on otherworldly excursions in the first section by trumpet and alto saxophone, the two engaged in volatile conversation that funnel through groves of whines and shrieks. Some passages sound like the instruments are moving a mile a minute, or like they're clashing without hope for compromise, only to be swiftly eased by tenuous, atonal electronic drones.
Originally recorded in Uganda, a tape of a lute and "an old African man and his two sons" was run through ring modulators, heard in the early minutes of the album's second part. A Ghanaian drum choir rumbles, offering fascinating polyrhythms organized in what Russell calls the Vertical Form. "In the African drum choir," he explained, "one drummer is the rhythmic gravity, while the others gradually layer on sophisticated rhythms on top of this tonal centre. The whole isn't really evolving in a horizontal way; it's evolving in complexity and density. It's vertical energy getting higher and higher, compounding." The robust groove in the bass and the Jimi Hendrix wah-wah of the electric guitar are also one of the many stars in this segment. Part two, with its emphasis on rock-driven psychedelia, illustrates why critics often compare the album to Miles Davis's Bitches Brew, which came out two years later.
Like many works created ahead of its time, the album was met with some controversy. For a genre still warming up to electronic music, it was unorthodox and sparked much debate as a result. In a 1990 interview, Bob Daughtry asked Russell what encouraged him to integrate electronics with live music. "I want to take music to a place it's never been," he responded. "Any time I sit down, I want to take music to a place it hasn't visited before." It makes sense then, that Russell held in high regard some of the boldest talents in jazz. Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra are some examples of musicians he revered, innovative risk-takers who gave jazz a fresh spiritual awakening.
Russell has discussed his fondness for "global music," sounds that defy genre due to their wide-spanning cultural influences. Music with an inherently free nature. Perhaps it's exactly this liberatory essence that has cast Electronic Sonata into the dusty halls of jazz's historical memory. Over five decades later, every moment still feels fresh and striking, at a time when people still continue to tussle with genre authenticity and trifling conventions. But like the theorist he is, Russell wouldn't label his music as entirely "free." "I don't think anything like that exists in the world or in music," he said in a 1974 interview. "I think there are higher laws—although, as you move under higher laws you may operate under fewer laws, thus moving in a state of relative freedom as compared to being under numerous smaller laws. But there's always a law in music."
01. Part One
02. Part Two