A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange


Hal Russell NRG Ensemble, 1981                                                                                    ©Ann Nessa 2012

Hal Russell passed away twenty years ago. Tempus fugit indeed. I didn’t know him personally, really, I only interviewed him once, although I saw and heard him play I don’t know how many times, in Chicago and Victoriaville and Berlin, in lofts and art galleries and basement bars and concert halls, and anyway I suspect if you knew Hal’s music, you knew the man. There was no artifice, no posturing, no gamesmanship. Whatever his personal life was like, when he was performing his exuberance exploded out into the audience, often carrying the rest of the band along with him, though he was typically twenty-some years older than each of them. He would have made a great con man, because despite the dynamism of his music, behind a deceptively gruff-looking exterior he was so unassuming and sincere, but with perhaps just a touch of the carny in him. And he had a wry, self-effacing, incorrigible wit that manifested itself in his band’s surreal antics, along with his off-hand, satirical stage demeanor; I remember once during a rapturously received concert in Canada, he announced “And now ladies and gentlemen, here’s another tune that we hope you will enjoy, if that’s possible.” (I think he meant it.) On the front cover of his CD Albert’s Lullaby (Southport) is a photo of Hal, grey-bearded, in suit and tie, at one of the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s annual Jazz Fairs, seated behind a table, selling homemade cassettes of his concerts from a cardboard box labeled “Old Hal Russell! Get It Here! Very Old!”  And then there’s the title of his musical ode to Halloween, “Hal the Weenie.”

It was in the 1970s when, after a long career as a professional musician – with all of the ups and mostly downs that the phrase “professional musician” implies, drumming in big bands and theater pits, for dances  and weddings, only on a rare occasion getting the gig in a local rhythm section to back up the touring Miles Davis (they were the same age) or Sarah Vaughan for a night – he once again picked up the trumpet he had set down thirty years earlier (learned of necessity in college, because the University of Illinois didn’t allow a percussion major back then) and, inspired by Albert Ayler, decided he wanted to play tenor saxophone too. So, in his 50s, Hal Russell plunged headfirst into the maelstrom of free jazz. It wasn’t totally unprecedented. In the early ‘60s, he had latched on to a bassist with interests in modern classical music and the occult, Russell Thorne, and an open-minded Chicago saxophonist, Joe Daley, and together they became one of the first American groups to reflect Ornette Coleman’s controversial inside-out perspective. (Their only album, The Joe Daley Trio At Newport ‘63 (RCA), was, title notwithstanding, at least partially recorded in the studio, only partially indicative of the band’s adventurous nature, and – to date never having been issued on CD – is as rare as a Republican at Bruce Springsteen’s birthday party.) But so far the primary evidence we have of his all-out commitment to unfettered improvisation is from 1979: Elixir by Russell’s Chemical Feast (first issued in 2001 by critic-turned-art-gallery-owner John Corbett’s Unheard Music Series), a riotous, rousing display of conceptually designed freedom and joyous abandon, featuring names that fell into the cracks of history (whatever happened to saxophonist Spider Middleman or promising vibist George Southgate?) and one, Mars Williams, who is to this day an enduring – hell, ferocious – representative of the Russell legacy.

Williams’ own radical vision and reed expertise was forged in part from youthful studies with Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, and as their neglected, seismological duo LP from 1981, Eftsoons (Nessa) shows, he shared with Hal a love of improvisational daring and extravagance. Their paired saxophones suggest bagpipes and jet engines, evoke dinosaur roars and satellite static; when Russell chimes in on vibes or his patented Sonny Murray-meets-Gene Krupa drumming they are an NRG Ensemble in microcosm. It was only his successful forays with ‘80s rock bands The Waitresses and Psychedelic Furs that prevented Williams from appearing on the initial NRG recordings. The first official NRG album, also from ‘81, newly reissued on Nessa, is a glorious showcase for the band’s instrumental talents and illuminates the deft balance between the compositional and intensely intuitive sides of Russell’s music. The personnel was put together through years of trial by fire. Two bassists, Curt Bley and Brian Sandstrom, provided churning rhythmic momentum, and Sandstrom added tart trumpet riffs and sorties (and later, squawking guitar commentary). Steve Hunt, a thoughtful, potent drummer and crisply vibrant vibist, alternated with Hal on both instruments. Chuck Burdelik’s animated, incisive saxophone solos were an emphatic foil to Hal’s Ayleresque C melody sax excursions. In addition to the drums, vibes, and saxophone, Russell threw in some shenai, cornet, and zither. What continues to impress today, and in fact makes the music sound newly minted, is the thoughtful, variable shaping of the extended pieces. “Uncontrollable Rages” and “Linda Jazz Princess” are constructed with dramatic textural and expressive contrasts, emphasizing shifting instrumental colors, terraced dynamics, and unpredictable solo viewpoints. ”Lost Or?” and “C Melody Mania,” two long cuts included from a previously unreleased earlier session, are looser in design, but concentrated in expression. This is free jazz with a focus and an alluring attitude.

Though they received only a few offers to record during the ‘80s, Russell continued to issue some of his most ambitious works on self-produced cassettes. One such release, Hal On Earth, first came out in 1989 but was reissued on CD in 1995 by the Abduction label. Other, crucial extended works like Fred (a tribute to Fred Astaire which included onstage dancers), The Von Trapp Family Singers (Hal’s satiric version of The Sound of Music), and Time Is All You’ve Got: The Artie Shaw Story are in dire need of release. Provoked by the rise of MTV rock music videos, NRG even made their own – an absurd, smartly-produced, tongue-in-cheek little farce, bathed in German Expressionist shadows, part Fritz Lang and part Devo, to Sandstrom’s “Pontiac,” that you can see on YouTube. Soon after, the indefatigable Kent Kessler took over for Curt Bley, Mars Williams returned to the fold, and by the end of the decade the NRG Ensemble became one of the most exhilarating bands – musically and conceptually – that I’ve ever experienced. How to describe them? Let me quote ... myself, from an article I wrote on Hal for Pulse magazine.

“Who is this band of eye-opening, ear-splitting, mind-boggling unknowns, who improvise at a feverish pitch with such passionate, convulsive glee – but interrupt their heaven storming to perform ‘Mice in the Closet,’ five minutes of barely audible sounds, all five musicians crouched in front of the stage shredding paper and squeaking? Or ‘Moon Of Manakoora,’ according to Hal first sung by sarong-clad Dorothy Lamour in a dubious South Sea film epic, here warbled through an oversized paper megaphone, Rudy Vallee style, by Hal while three Australian didgeridoos moan and Mars blows a Sesame Street bubble sax behind Hal’s head? Onstage and on disc, the NRG Ensemble can be baffling, bizarre, breathtaking. That’s their charm. Like Sun Ra’s troupes and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, visual theatrics heighten the experience. Hal and Mars’ twin tenor saxophones stalking each other in circles; Hal and Steve Hunt sharing a single set of vibes for an incandescent mallet ballet; all five musicians putting down their instruments to pick up fly swatters … Hal believes ‘The visual part is important, but to a lesser degree. It provides a nice change from a straight blowing experience, and I enjoy doing it for comic relief or a change of mood. I don’t like to take things too seriously because I think that can be deadly. I think that too many avant-garde or free-form groups tend to take themselves so fucking seriously that it detracts from the music. To me, humor is part of the enjoyment of jazz.’ ”

My Pulse article was published in May 1992. Four months later, Hal died of complications after heart surgery. At a memorial concert at Southend Musicworks in Chicago, each member of a standing room only audience wore a xeroxed paper Hal Russell mask while the NRG Ensemble raved on. (Some of us still have our masks.) There’s a bitter irony in that the final recording Hal was fated to make, for ECM, was The Hal Russell Story, a fantasmagorical musical odyssey through his career, the NRG’ers translating Swing and bop into their own vocabulary, free as you please, closing with a rip-snorting cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” Hal croaking “I can’t help about the shape I’m in / I can’t sing I ain’t pretty and my legs are thin / But don’t ask me what I think of you / I might not give the answer that you want me to.” At least Harold Russell Luttenbacher ultimately made the music that made him happy, and went out in a blaze of glory. Twenty years. Oh well.

Art Lange©2012

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