Anybody who has walked down a street in New York City has met one of those people who although he or she has never met you wants to tell you about something important, perhaps something that will change the way you hear music. Let me be that person for a minute. I have something for you to listen to. Something you absolutely must hear. The price is not steep, but, oh, what pleasure you are going to get. Believe me, you will thank me. Here, try George Russell’s New York N.Y., I give you my word you’ll want more.
This album was first released in 1958 and while George Russell was still in the spring of his long and brilliant career, it is an amazing snapshot of the Big Apple when it was the capital of the jazz world. It’s a snapshot of the musician's lot in life when jazz was still America’s popular music. It is a snapshot of the possibilities that jazz possessed when the masters of the music were young lions. This sonic portrait is composed, arranged and directed by George Russell. George is a musician's composer and he captured the tumult of one of jazz’s greatest eras, as only a participant could. George was just thirty years old and had been composing for only about twelve years. Today in his eighties George Russell is still hard at work making innovative jazz.
In 1958 Jon Hendricks had recently arrived in New York and George approached him asking him if he would like to write some lyrics for a project he was working on. George broke it down and Jon agreed that he would put words to music. He wrote the lyrics to be delivered in vocalese a style that Jon Hendricks Jon took and developed over the course of his career.
I asked George how he met Jon. George told me, "The New York jazz scene in those days was a small community, and even if one didn’t actually know a particular musician, one knew of him and his reputation; introductions were a formality." Jon recalled their meeting, "I had just got to New York; I came because Charlie Parker said I should and he had told everyone about me. I was hanging out with Quincy Jones hustling songs around Broadway in the West Fifties. I think we were at Lindy’s, when George introduced himself to me and told me he was doing something that I might like. I asked him what that was and he told me he was doing a tone poem with the City as the central character." He told me, "Write your impressions of New York. That’s how it came about, one artist to another, it didn’t take me long to write."
The album opens with George's arrangement of Lorenz Hart’s "Manhattan." The performance opens with Charlie Persip’s quick attention grabbing drum intro, then Jon’s lyrics blast off like a bottle rocket in the park. Jon’s minute and twenty plus seconds of vocalese is crammed with iconic illusions and memorable lines such as, "Think you can lick it, Go to the wicket, buy you a ticket, Go" and one set of word pictures that I particularly like, "A while ago there were cats reading while other cats played jazz behind them, there wasn’t nothin’ happening, so the musicians went right on playing like they didn’t even mind, I wrote the shortest jazz poem ever heard, nothin’ bout huggin’, kissin’, one word - Listen."
In addition to the lyrics there is the instrumental music, under George's direction the orchestra is as tight as any you will see at Lincoln Center and with only twelve pieces as rich as a symphony orchestra. George’s arrangement overlays the orchestra’s performance with a succession of improvised solos that show off, dance and grab center stage. First, Bob Brookmeyer, fresh from a four year stint with baritone saxophone master Gerry Mulligan solos on trombone with authority and wit, and then takes turns soloing with Frank Rehak; this gives way to Bill Evans, still early in his career, still full of so much exquisite music, with a solo that is elegant and jazzy and goes through three mood changes. This solo is decorated with trills and runs which dazzle, yet Bill keeps his eye on the theme. This you realize is really good. Next John Coltrane solos on tenor sax. At first there is only his rich, mellow horn, then he is joined by the bass, played by Milt "the Judge" Hinton and finally with the pace rising. Charlie Persip joins in and the orchestra lays down a sound that is so naturally New York it seems organic, it seems part of the city’s air, and the city’s pulse.
Next track on the disc is a George Russell original "Big City Blues," which opens with the full orchestra and devolves quickly to Bill Evans soloing on the piano and then Jon Hendricks comes in with his second piece of narration. Here Jon talks about a particular strain of Manhattan blues, to which musicians are prone. It is blues fed by the oppressive cost of living in the city, by the police who won't leave you alone, by the music industry who won't pay you fairly for your talent, work or music, by the DJ who won't play the music wrung from your soul.
Then there is the pit from which some didn't return; lack of acceptance of your music, which of course to a musician is the most personal, the hardest to bear. Jon Hendricks ends his tone-poem with the phrase "but, lack of acceptance is less like something to hide from, and more like something Bird died from."
Narration ended and we cut to the music. Horns come in melancholy but assertive, the music is poetic in the same manner that a black and white photo is poetic, muted, and quietly brooding. This music would make a perfect soundtrack for a New York crime story, set anytime from the 1950s until whenever today happens to be.
There is great use of rhythm section throughout and bass, drums, and piano paint a shifting moody background for the soloists to work over. George keeps the pace changing while staying true to the mood of the blues.
Benny Golson’s solo has a definite lilt to it and the sound could serve as a definition for the word, "lush." His playing is round and warm and moves from a conversational pace to very fast manic pace. Benny’s saxophone does speak and the horns answer.
Then Art Farmer’s trumpet does the same, but it is less warm, more swaggering and assertive. Finally Bill Evans plays a solo which again captures the night club feel of good cinema; you won’t mistake his playing for church or recital hall. In fact you can almost smell the cigarettes, cocktails and perfume.
In the end this piece has communicated an experience that the performer has in a welcoming, hostile place, but also lets the listener sit at a good table and hear a melancholy and manic story that is not easily forgotten.
There are three more incredible tracks on this CD but I won’t ruin the experience by laying them out for you, I will let you bask in the music and experience it yourself.
I do want to mention however, that there is an incredible line up of talent on this recording. In fact there are twenty seven musicians on the disc, including a very young John Coltrane, Phil Woods, Art Farmer, Bob Brookmeyer, Benny Golson, Milt Hinton, Max Roach and Charlie Persip.
I asked Jon Hendricks how George Russell, a man not well known to the general public and still early in his career, could get such a band together.
Dr. Hendricks said, "If George Russell, or Duke Ellington, or Gil Evans says I want you on my date next Thursday at 3:00 pm, the player will show up, because the player is honored to do so. George is a consummate artist and he brings out the best in his players. I have never heard John Coltrane play a better solo than he played on Manhattan. I have never heard Bill Evans play a better piano solo. They both played at their peak. I wrote at my peak because it was for George."
I hope that this is enough to whet your appetite for what I believe is one of the seminal albums in the history of jazz. It has given me many hours of pleasure and I believe you will not be disappointed, in this or in any of the albums George Russell has released over the years.