It was only through George Russell’s obituary that I ever learned about him in the first place. He was not as household a name as Duke or Miles or ‘Trane, but he mattered in a way that is only now becoming clearer to me the more I delve into his catalog. Better late than never, I suppose, but maybe there is no “late” when you are dealing with someone who has become effectively immortal through their work.
Russell was not just a composer, performer and bandleader, but one of jazz’s major theoreticians — someone who took what jazz was about and codified it in a scholastic way. Most people immediately wrinkle their noses at the words music theory and I know I did at first, but on getting closer to his work I realized he used that perspective to tunnel into jazz and build outwards from inside it to create new things. His theory was meant to be practice, and the recordings that exist of his work are testaments to the ways that could be done.
Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature, for me, stands as the best example of this incarnate theorizing. It has been recorded at least three different times, each version enough unlike the others that it becomes clear even to someone without a copy of the score how much the work was meant to be interpreted in each performance. Originally released on the tiny Flying Dutchman and Strata-East labels, it became a favorite not only of jazz fans but prog-rock and experimental music lovers thanks to its scope (it’s one long composition broken over two sides of an LP), long modal passages, use of tapes and electronics, and its general atmosphere of striving, surpassing and transcending. It went out of print for nearly a decade or more, became a collector’s item, and has since returned on CD and as an MP3 download. The latter is easily the best way to spend $2 burning a hole in your pocket.
Souls consists of fourteen movements or “events”, each of which revolves around a few key melodic concepts or constructions, and which could exist by themselves as standalone jazz compositions. Of the three recordings of the piece that I know, the 1968 Flying Dutchman / Soul Note version remains my favorite. I suspect at least some of that is due to me having encountered it first, but the second (recorded in 1978) and the earliest (1968) are both strong recordings in their own right. Somehow, the 1968 recording — with John Christensen, Jan Garbarek, Red Mitchell, Terje Rypdal, Manfred Schoof and Russell himself — stands out as the most authoritative and definitive version to my ears. Every moment seems exactly right, even the loosest and most improvisatory passages.
In each incarnation the whole work begins with a propulsive, metronomic bassline — one of the best ever created, if you ask me — joined by a complementary rhythm and with sax and trumpet rising and arcing over the whole thing. The mood and tempo of each event varies tremendously: sometimes confident and assertive; sometimes forceful; sometimes languid and meditative; sometimes frenzied. Specific motifs and melodic phrases come and go, either by themselves or accompanied by soaring solo performances on each of the key instruments. Russell puts himself far in the background — much like Miles during his electric / On the Corner phases — and for the most part supplies a regular rhythm of piano chords. Here and there, though, he steps to the fore and leads the band at the head of a few of the movements, steering them into an unexpected new direction.
Underneath and between each section can be heard taped sounds produced by Russell — Stockhausen-like electronics; conventional instruments treated and processed heavily until they are no more than reverberant presences; and field recordings of the voices and music of an Ugandan man and his sons. Like many of Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s best albums, it has a cosmic boldness to it: it dares to speak on behalf of the whole of man, to advocate for his presence in and his integration with the universe.
Some of that feeling, I admit, was shaped and informed by an explanation of the title in the liner notes. There we learn the title and much of the underlying theme of the work was inspired by a comment from one of Russell’s friends, one Turid Aarstad: “Nature likes those who give into to her but she loves those who do not.” In the liner notes Russell explains: “… though nature might seem to resist the efforts of the soul who will not bend or give in short of its goal, nature is perhaps only testing the truth of a soul’s belief in itself … [and] will reward a dedication to one’s essence … especially when one’s essence is [in tune with] the part of nature having to do with the spiritual enrichment of man.” Reading that reminded me of John Cage quoting a statement from Sri Ramakrishna, about music being a means to approach “life everlasting” — to which Cage added, “And to life, period.”
One risk that goes with making all such statements — not just about music, but life and existence generally — is how they will be approached by those who are not normally of a spiritual bent, or whose sense of spirituality does not typically encompass music. Casually discussing matters of spirit and soul is difficult without a like-minded audience, or at least an audience that has prepared to receive a spiritually-themed message. It can come off as proselytizing, even if it wasn’t intended to be. It puts such discussions all the more back in the hands of those who have a monopoly on matters of the spirit — mainly, religious institutions which are more interested in size and influence than they are in the far more difficult and personal projects of salvation or liberation.
The problem is all the more manifold when dealing with art where any message, such as it is, is less in the art itself than it is in the discussion of it: a listener can simply take the art on its own terms, divorced of any spiritual context. And beyond that, art can always be reduced to mere raw material, or worse yet placed in contexts where it serves impulses completely contrary from its original design. Think of all the movie trailers that have turned “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana into a mindless action cue, or how the Mona Lisa lost almost all of its original mystery and fascination by sheer overexposure. This is all without even approaching the whole of religious iconography itself — although because those things were developed within that context they tend to survive that much more abuse. A Pieta will always hold a certain power for those raised under the wing of Christianity, but the damage done to “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (and The Who generally) by the likes of CSI seems harder to undo — not only because the original and the damage done to it all exist on a much smaller timescale, but because what sanctity the original had was entirely secular. It was born in the mud, and back into the mud it’ll go.
That said, there do seem to be secular works that don’t lend themselves to being pressed casually into the service of a culture obsessed with amusing itself at the cost of most every other impulse. Few people, even those who have no background in classical music as such, can listen to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Strauss’s Blue Danube and not smirk inwardly, no thanks to their easy misuse by so many others. It hardly matters that Danube was pressed into the service of 2001: a space odyssey, easily one of the best films ever made. The film has become more of a reference point for the work than the work itself, even among those who have never experienced either one in its self-contained entirety.
Jazz seems to have been luckier, though. Even at the height of its general popularity, it never became the kind of cultural commodity that could be so easily raided and cannibalized. Its appeal remained limited in a self-selecting way, and has remained so to this day. The best-selling jazz albums — whether Kind of Blue or Köln Concert — remain anonymous to most people, even most self-professed music lovers. The end result is a good deal of music that still remains fresh and, yes, spiritual thanks to a relative lack of overexposure and re-contextualization. Success hasn’t spoiled it yet.
The same goes for Sonata. To my knowledge it has never been used in a movie or commercial, and it remains relatively unknown even amongst jazz fans. And because of those things, its urge to describe — or provide — a spiritual experience doesn’t come off as hackneyed in the slightest. If God is in who we are and what we do, rather than in some catechism or dogma alone, maybe it will only be through music this cloistered that those who find spirit so universally will also find transportation to life everlasting. And life, period.