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George Russell R.I.P.

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Pete Marsh - BBC Music Interactive | 11:43 UK time, Monday, 28 September 2009

The composer, pianist and theoretician George Russell passed away at the end of July, and this weekend Alyn Shipton's excellent Jazz Library programme paid tribute to him with a revealing and fascinating archive interview.

Russell's great gift to jazz was something he called The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation, which all sounds a bit dull till you realise it was the spur for the modal explorations of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. So in a nutshell, no George Russell - no Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme.

Here's Alyn's recollections of Russell...

"I first got to talk to jazz composer and bandleader George Russell when I was researching a book on Dizzy Gillespie. Trumpeter Ian Carr put us in touch, and George told me how he'd been writing modal jazz for Dizzy in 1947. (That modal theory eventually transformed itself into George's lifetime's work on the Lydian mode.)

We stayed in contact, and I later did a number of magazine interviews with him, gradually getting to know him and his work as I previewed his various London appearances over the years. In due course, while I was making a World Service and Radio 3 documentary series about Ornette Coleman, I made the trek to Boston, Massachusetts, to meet George in person, as he had worked closely with Ornette in the 1950s and 60s. I took the subway Green Line right out to its furthest extremity, and then walked another mile or so, and finally came to George's house, tucked away behind the main University campus area. He was a great host, and we talked about music for hours, recording the interview about Ornette, and one about George himself that's the basis for the current Radio 3 Jazz Library programme.

If you listen really carefully, you can hear my producer Oliver Jones munching Kettle Chips in the background, from the luxurious spread that George had prepared for us. Sadly in a series of office moves, the original DAT tape seems to have disappeared - an occupational hazard of making radio shows, but fortunately I had a cassette backup and in order to present this very personal portrait of a great composer and musician, I hope everyone will bear with the hisses and crackles.

Not long after his last London visit, when I went to hear his band at the Barbican, George was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. Sadly he died this summer, but this Jazz Library interview which particularly explores his friendship with the pianist Bill Evans, is a tribute to a great man of American Music."

Here's one of George's best known tunes for your delectation.


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