June 17, 2000
HAL RUSSELL/MICHAEL STARON
(Southport S-SSD 0077)
This may the oddest session of Chicago "out" godfather Hal Russell's oddball career. Russell (1926-1992), was a former swing drummer who reinvented himself as a trumpeter/saxophonist in his forties and who almost single-handedly waved the freak flag in Chicago's North Side until what could be called the Ken) Vandermark Generation came of age in the 1990s.
Along the way, Russell recorded a series of critically-praised sessions with various editions of his NRG Ensemble, which served as the training ground for future "outsters" like bassist Kent Kessler and saxophonist Mars Williams.
But this outstanding CD is different. It features two different trios, anchored by bassist Michael Staron, who was the moving force behind the groups. Here Russell unleashes his horns on such disparate material as an adapted Georgian chant "Kyrie and Angus Dei", the theme song for the soap opera "Edge of Night", and Brahms' lullaby renamed and reconfigured as "Albert's Lullaby" in honor of Albert Ayler.
It's on these pieces and Ayler's "Vibrations" that Rusell fares best and it's no surprise, he once stated that he listened to old Ayler records at home for pleasure. On those tracks he's matched in intensity by Staron solid bass playing and drummer Shandling's percussive color. Even the Gregorian chant — where Russell becomes Don Ayler instead of Albert — is memorable, since the bassist tailored the tune for Russell's breathy, rudimentary technique.
Other tracks, labeled spontaneous improvisations, don't fare as well despite rolling, cushioning chords from Sparrow and a rock-solid bass bottom. Frankly, Rusell, who usually played concise compositions surrounded by multi-instrumental NRG sidefolk, sounds a bit uncomfortable improvising at this great length and having to be both Ayler brothers at the same time. Too often he falls back on his pet licks.
The one complete misstep here is "W", a Staron-composed piece of electronica played on the modular-Moog. With its lack of adhesion to the other tracks, it appears to be shoehorned into the mix because of the bassist's strong work elsewhere.
Still when all is said and done, there is more to praise than bury in ALBERT'S LULLABY. Musically it showcases a bassist rarely heard in this context and historically it offers a rare look at iconoclastic Rusell in a very small band setting.
They just don't make characters like him any more.
Track Listing: 1. Edge of Night 2. Albert's Lullaby 3. Vibrations 4. Kyrie and Angus Dei 5. Who's There? 6. Ghosts? 7. Aural 8. "W" 9. To Groove
Personnel: Hal Russell (tenor saxophone, trumpet); Sparrow (piano) [tracks 5, 7, 9]; Mike Staron (bass); Rick Shandling (drums) [tracks 1 - 4]