One Track Mind: Hal Russell, "Kenny G" (1992)

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Exploring the wonderful world of whack jazz can be both frustrating and fun. Frustrating because even some of the more influential artists of this genre lack good publicists—through no fault of their own—and fun because when you finally stumble across one of these important figures it’s like you found a treasure trove of music that sounds nothing like what your preconceptions tell you music should be like. Whack jazz is pretty much like that by definition.

That’s the best excuse I can offer as to why I’m relatively late to the Hal Russell party; a full sixteen years too late to have claimed I knew about him during his lifetime. Oh sure, I’m aware of the joyfully kinetic NRG Ensemble and even have a few of their records, but it never occurred to me that its leader was an important figure in free jazz, especially during those lean years of the seventies and eighties. Inexplicably, he didn’t record until he was in his fifties, and even then it was within the context of a band. That goes a long way toward explaining how Russell’s influence can escape the notice of many. But suddenly, there is a wealth of material to dive into and that’s where the real fun begins.

Actually, there isn’t. Covering Hal Russell the Solo Artist has taken less than an hour, because just months after this multi-instrumentalist pioneer of avant garde finally got around to recording a proper solo album (right before one last go around with NRG), he passed away at age 66. Nevertheless, the ECM release Hal’s Bells gives us plenty to ponder.

Hal’s Bells is a wonderful display of Russell putting together his diverse talants in percussion, trumpet, saxes, marimba and other instruments. The songs range from the spooky Albert Ayler mysticism of “Buddhi” to the organic African trance of “Strangest Kiss.” Throughout this diverse set it never loses it’s rhythmic center and each song posseses unique character, something that’s often hard to accomplish in a collection of abstract recordings.

I will readily confess that the “whim” that compelled me to select this particular track this time around is the title. The music contained within this cut couldn’t be any more sardonically at odds with its name. That should be a warning to those who happened upon this article by Googling “Kenny G” and expecting to find a celebration of Gorelick’s smooth jazz genius. Hey, I might pimp even disco on this site every so often, but we do have standards around here.

“Kenny G,” like all the other tracks here, is entirely performed by Russell. This time his weapons of choice are a tenor sax and a vibraphone, anchored loosely by some tom-tom and cymbal shadings. The melody is free flowing, going in whatever direction seems to fancy the artist at the moment. Almost harmolodic. And yet, Russell’s saxophone or vibes never gets abrasive; the song is both sweet and dissonant at the same time.

Whack jazz is always best served up with humor and irony. Russell understood that better than any other purveyor of the avant garde. Had he lived longer, he surely would have written a tune entitled “Boney James.” It would have been yet another damned fine song, too.

“One Track Mind” is a more-or-less weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too.

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