Hal Russell/NRG Ensemble: The Hal Russell Story (ECM 1498)

Hal Russell
NRG Ensemble
The Hal Russell Story

Hal Russell tenor and soprano saxophones, trumpet, drums, xylophone, percussion, gong, narration, vocals
Mars Williams tenor, alto and bass saxophones, toy horns, wood flute, didgeridoo, bells, sounds, narration
Brian Sandstrom acoustic bass, electric guitar, trumpet, toy horns, percussion
Kent Kessler acoustic bass, trombone
Steve Hunt drums, vibraphone, tympani, percussion
Recorded July 1992 at Hardstudios, Winterthur
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Steve Lake

What do you do when you know too much? 


The late and great Hal Russell passed away not five weeks after recording, prophetically enough, The Hal Russell Story, a whirlwind of a tour through the autobiography of one of jazz’s undisputed champions. From the intro, we get Russell’s taste of yore with megaphone amid an engagingly frenetic cyclone of sound, followed by a toy parade in the spirit of the Art Ensemble of Chicago: a romp through childhood’s darkest corners, ending in a trumpet free-for-all and the sketch of a nascent musician caught in the radio waves of life. So begins the 18-part title suite, a pan bursting with golden nuggets of abandon. A bed of drumming supports with mounting intensity a lithe dance of vibes. A swinging sax rises from the depths of a torturously sonorous past. A breezy sort of high-octane energy works its saxophonic magic at every turn with delectable aplomb. Squawks and dark raptures trade verses for curses against some hard-hitting reed work all around. The rhythm section sees Russell eye to eye at every level. Incredible screeches from tenor work over an invisible crowd with utterly attenuated vocal energy. That wonderful rhythm section kicks in at key moments, making headway against the soprano’s ululating tide. Smokier flavors sit side-by-side with empty flutters from bass. From match-lit tributes to late masters to quiet reflections, every nuance speaks as if born again, unsure of the death that gave it life. A growling guitar swept up in unsheathed brass is blown to bits by squealing tenor, letting us down easy into the night, where Miles still wanders, dragging the weighty trailer of his craft. Flowering little suspension bridges of influence and affect bleed into slices of swank. Dramatic pops and scuttling opportunities run rampant. The band’s resolve contracts and expands through haunts and explosions. Freedom principles and fast rules tune themselves to the drama of “Lady In The Lake,” a pensive and strangely declamatory track that nudges us into a distinctive rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.”

Steve Lake has produced some of ECM’s most exciting recordings, and The Hal Russell Story stands as a crowning achievement. A brilliant album that weaves its personal threads over and under for an honest patchwork. With all of this clear from one studio effort, I can only imagine what the live NRG experience must have been as musicians switched instruments at the drop of a hat in a controlled chaos.

Vaudeville, yes vaudeville (can’t seem to shake the influence).

<< Peter Erskine Trio: You Never Know (ECM 1497)
>> Red Sun/SamulNori: Then Comes The White Tiger (ECM 1499)

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