Contemporary improvised music in Chicago owes much of its development to two sets of people – the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the scene around multi-instrumentalist Hal Russell (1926-1992). Now split between Chicago and New York chapters, from its beginnings the AACM was primarily based in the South Side, and provided education and self-reliance to young, black, economically disadvantaged artists. It has birthed and encouraged the work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, reedist-composers Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith, and many others since its founding in 1965. Hal Russell’s work was less formalized in the sense of a specific musicians’/artists’ organization, but nevertheless he surrounded himself with fascinating young players and helped give rise to an equally eclectic scene in North and Northwest Chicago neighborhoods from the mid-1970s until (and after) his death. While little cross-pollination seemed to exist between the two environments, at least on the surface (keeping in mind that the AACM was founded in the midst of the Black Power movement and Russell’s cohort was white), their aesthetic goals likely shared more than they diverged in spite of Chicago’s highly segregated urban landscape.
In some ways, Russell was as much “ancient to the future” as the AACM-ers; he worked as a big-band drummer before adding tenor, trumpet, and vibes to his arsenal and embracing free improvisation, yet retained “swing” and even “entertainment” in light of taking the music “out.” Though somewhat known in Windy City jazz circles, Russell’s name hadn’t made it that far outside when the eponymous NRG Ensemble LP was waxed for Nessa Records in 1981 (also an early documenter of the AACM). His only other commercial release at the time was with the even more obscure tenorman Joe Daley for the latter’s The Joe Daley Trio At Newport ’63 (RCA-Victor), featuring bassist Russell Thorne, a strange hybrid of the jazz/classical “Third Stream” and open improvisation. Russell formed the NRG Ensemble in the late 1970s and it continued even beyond his death, though the group’s most vital work naturally featured his voice. Russell’s conscripts and associates over the years included reedmen Mars Williams and Ken Vandermark, bassists Kent Kessler and Brian Sandstrom, and percussionist Steve Hunt. On this particular date, Russell is heard on drums, vibes, cornet, zither, shenai and c-melody saxophone, joined by Sandstrom, Hunt, reedman Chuck Burdelik, and bassist Curt Bley for a program of six originals (two of which have been added to this CD reissue).
It’s not particularly difficult to hear aesthetic allegiances with the AEC in the NRG Ensemble’s music at this stage; the lengthy “Linda Jazz Princess” has a jaunty swing, crackling with Hunt’s fluid time and Bley’s robust, plastic pizzicato. Following Burdelik’s throaty and economical free-bop tenor, Russell is banshee-like and virile on c-melody saxophone, roguish squeals and harried elisions recalling the young Albert Ayler’s wailing against a more reigned-in rhythmic structure. Wild oom-pah fanfare arises, recalling the early-jazz nods of the Art Ensemble, or perhaps woollier instances of the William Breuker Kollektief, before fragmenting into frenetic collective improvisation, Sandstrom doubling on trumpet and soon emitting a condensed and utterly weird unaccompanied solo. The musicians’ improvisations are clearly directed and arrived at with a sense of rigorous arrangement, as much as they sonically seem to come from left field – witness Russell’s glassine vibes exposition, abruptly yielding to a power trio fronted by Burdelik’s alto. The tendency to switch between a variety of instruments does seem AACM-like, but rather than using diversity as a coloring device, the musicians in the NRG Ensemble are at a continually propulsive back-and-forth, doing the work of parallel small-groups at an orchestrated cutting-contest. “Seven Spheres” closes the initial LP tracks, and is by comparison a tone poem that utilizes pocket trumpet, vibes, and clarinet to augment the more “bent” sounds of Russell’s zither and shenai.
The album’s opener, “Uncontrollable Rages,” seems almost schizoid at the outset as it volleys between violent tenor/drum duets (Burdelik and Russell) and measured vibes/bass interplay (Hunt and Sandstrom). It’s clear that Russell’s loose, delicate drumming is that of “teacher” and Hunt’s ragtime to no-time swirls are those of “student” – all one has to do is compare the former behind his mates’ heel-digging onslaught on “Uncontrollable Rages” with the latter on “Linda Jazz Princess.” Russell’s touch/concept is very light but certainly pushes the music with a master’s brushstrokes. And if titles invoking a frothy rage reminds one of a certain Weasel Walter, well, that’s not entirely baseless: Walter’s longtime outfit The Flying Luttenbachers initially included Russell on tenor, and the group’s moniker was in homage to Russell’s family name. The bulk of the piece is actually quite spare and open, given to Hunt’s gloriously effervescent vibraphone runs, and when the ensemble is in furious motion it’s with a joyous air of fluidity. Following NRG Ensemble, Russell made two more records for Nessa: Eftsoons (1981), a series of duets with Mars Williams, and the Charles Tyler-abetted Generations (1982/1989, released via the UK imprint Chief). He went on to record a series of excellent dates for ECM at the turn of the 1990s, leading to a bit of international recognition in the autumn of his life. But this wonderfully remastered and augmented early set is indispensable for fans of contemporary improvisation and those who want to hear more of Chicago’s creative music roots.