Hal Russell: Hal’s Bells (ECM 1484)

Hal Russell
Hal’s Bells

Hal Russell tenor and soprano saxophones, trumpet, musette, drums, vibraphone, bass marimba, congas, gongs, bells, percussion, voice
Recorded May 1992 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Steve Lake

Hal’s Bells is a rare thing: an artist’s first solo recording made in his last year. This astonishing statement is a panorama of Hal Russell’s succinctly indefinable career (for the best attempt at such, look no further than The Hal Russell Story), which the hapless listener finds realized in the breadth of his one-man band abilities. From drums (his starter instrument) to bass and horns, his kit has room for no other. A congregation of marimba and bells in “Buddhi” speaks with childlike innocence before cracking open an egg of reeds and Chinese gongs. Such contrasts prove quotidian in a space where the fuel-engaged tenor of “Millard Mottker” and “Strangest Kiss” can hug the muted trumpet goodness of “Portrait Of Benny” without a blink of hesitation. Soprano skills are on full tap in “Susanna.” Even as he twists himself into all manner of contortions, Hal maintains an astounding level of precision in the highs and sets off a lovely spate of vibes against some thread-through-needle drumming. “Carolina Moon” has much to say in 390 seconds, howling like a pack of wolves in desperate need of attention but which instead converges on “Kenny G.” While the latter’s endearing abandon is as far from its patron saint as can be, it nevertheless rings with a relatively free and breezy timbre. The enticing solo of “I Need You Now” furthers the album’s mission from restlessness to meditation and unmasks a deceptive repose in “For Free” (which might as well be Russell’s motto). The great vibes—in all respects—of this track work toward a blubbering finish sure to leave you breathless and in want of the elixir that is “Moon Of Manakoora.” This vocally blessed excursion into outer space is a straight shot to that marsh in the sky where, no doubt, Russell’s squealing energies continue to mount, ever amphibious and slithering their way through territories unclean yet oh so stunning.

The rewards of Hal’s Bells might never have been known to us were it not for Steve Lake, who has seen fit to produce a selective body of work for ECM in the interest of preserving sometimes-underappreciated artists, and we have him and Manfred Eicher to thank for believing in Hal, now immortal in the digital afterlife.

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