Hal Russell/NRG Ensemble: The Finnish/Swiss Tour (ECM 1455)

Hal Russell
NRG Ensemble
The Finnish/Swiss Tour

Hal Russell tenor and soprano saxophones, trumpet, vibraphone, drums
Mars Williams tenor and soprano saxophones, didgeridoo
Brian Sandstrom bass, trumpet, guitar
Kent Kessler bass, bass guitar, didgeridoo
Steve Hunt drums, vibraphone, didgeridoo
Recorded November 1990 at the Tampere Jazz Happening and the Internationales Jazz Festival Zürich
Finnish recording: Antti Sjöholm, Finnish Broadcasting Company
Swiss recording: Martin Pearson, Radio DRS
Norwegian mix: Jan Erik Kongshaug, Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Album compiled/produced by Steve Lake

Hal Russell deserves an entry in the dictionary under the word free, for how can the mindful listener feel anything else when steeped in the incendiary playing of the late Renaissance man. The Finnish/Swiss Tour, recorded during his first European tour in November of 1990 at a tender 64, was my second Hal Russell experience, after The Hal Russell Story. Looking back on this discovery, which as of this review can be counted in days, I wonder how I never encountered Hal Russell until only recently. Then again, often the most perspective-altering music seeks us out only when the time is ripe, does it not?

Russell famously picked up his first saxophone at age fifty: pure happenstance but love at first play. As a drummer he beat along with the greats: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, Sarah Vaughan…the list goes on. With a songbook of over 400 original compositions and a spirit to match, Russell seems a veritable John Zorn of creative genius. Yet that genius lies as much in his demeanor as in his explosive tendencies on stage. Thankfully, if almost impossibly, he shares that stage here with the NRG Ensemble, a brilliant quartet consisting of Mars Williams on reeds, Brian Sandstrom and Kent Kessler on basses and guitars, and Steve Hunt on vibes. With this support network shining his guillotine at every turn, Russell is sure to leave not a few heads rolling in his wake.

Such metaphorical language might leave one under the false impression, however, that this is confrontational music meant to baffle and alienate. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we have is an ethos that thrashes with flailing but open arms, welcoming all who would listen into an amusement park of thrilling rides. We encounter, for example, the ecstatic tenors of “Hal The Weenie,” which according to our illustrious leader shoot the breeze in honor of Halloween, thus slicing up a most twisted Jack-o’-lantern of free jazz brilliance that has the crowd in gleeful awe, and us before our stereos in envy for not having been there when it all went down.

Rusell is, without a doubt, the center of attention, if not always in the playing (Williams’s blasting tenor siphons much of that credit; just spin “Ten Letters Of Love” and know) then in the writing, for his name lies behind every shattered tune. His dialoguing with Williams in “Raining Violets,” an acrid romp through some intense melodic flowers indeed, is strangely comforting and proof positive of the irresistible nature of these goings on. For go on we do, lost in the labyrinth of a didgeridoo’s darkest visions in “For MC” (featuring Russell on a lovely muted trumpet) and found dreaming a “Dance Of The Spider People.” Williams beguiles us in this web of wonders with a luscious soprano, Kessler providing the ostinato before the whole thing cracks like stressed glass in slow motion to the tune of its own masochism. “Linda’s Rock Vamp,” on the other hand, skewers its kabobs one instrumental morsel at a time and roasts them over raging conflagration of attention. Russell’s deft solo on vibes opens the floor in “Temporarily.” The ensuing debate gets raucous fast, rivaling even the British Parliament with its overwhelming tenors.

Yet one moment above all defines the Finnish/Swiss experience in the blink of an eye. It occurs after Russell and Williams have just finished the introductory crosstalk of “Monica’s Having A Baby,” tumbling like a jellyroll aflame into a pile of abstraction. Though we are breathless, a quick “thank you” from Russell is all it takes for him to dive headfirst into the incredible aliveness of “Aila/35 Basic.” The offhandedness of this transition speaks, actually, to the seriousness of his humor, and betrays an artist totally comfortable in his skin.

No survey of this record would be complete without a bow before the totem of “Mars Theme.” For this hot ticket, Russell jumps from drums to tenor to trumpet to soprano faster than you can say “Red Bats With Teeth” (cf. David Lynch’s Lost Highway), for Bob Sheppard’s solo in that classic fever dream is precisely what comes to mind. It is a bridge into the high-octane menagerie of a castle scarred by barbed wire, its towers reaching an apex of intensity so bright that we cannot help but close our eyes and dream of what Russell might still sound like on the other side.

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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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).

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