June 18, 1983: Premiere of George Russell’s “African Game”
“The African Game,” performed by George Russell and the Living Time Orchestra, was a major event, perhaps the most important event in Boston jazz in 1983.
Russell, who died in 2009, was a giant in music. He was a pianist, composer, arranger, teacher (over 30 years at the New England Conservatory of Music), and theorist. Russell received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and two Guggenheim Fellowships, was named a National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Master, and garnered numerous other honors and awards. And although this musical pioneer was lionized abroad, he was strangely ignored at home.
Jazz fans might recognize Russell as composer of “Cubano Be/Cubano Bop,” and the artist behind 1950s recordings like The Jazz Workshop and New York, N.Y. Jazz musicians know him for defining the principles of the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, a theory that I will not attempt to define. He was a formative voice in the Third Stream movement, and Gunther Schuller brought him to the New England Conservatory in 1969, where he remained for the rest of his career.
“The African Game” was commissioned by the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities. Russell’s theme was human evolution, and the title suggests that perhaps God once did play dice with the universe, and rolled them to determine the evolution of our African-born species—an African game. The work’s movements proceed from the beginning of life on earth through a series of evolutionary events. The game goes on.
The Boston Jazz Coalition provided a suitable venue, Emmanuel Church, the site of their long-running Jazz Celebrations series. The June 18 program opened with three tunes played by the sextet of trumpeter Mark Harvey, tenor saxophonist Gary Joynes, altoist Janus Steprans, guitarist Mark White, electric keyboardist Marc Rossi, electric bassist Bill Urmson, and drummer Keith Copeland.
The 25-member Living Time Orchestra played Miles Davis’s “So What” and Russell’s “Time Spiral,” a piece originally commissioned by the Swedish Radio Broadcasting System in 1979.
The 45-minute “African Game” concluded the concert, and happily for us, it was recorded and issued on LP by the newly revived Blue Note label (BT 85103) in 1985. Listening to it now, I heard a whole host of forgotten delights that must have been astonishing at Emmanuel Church: the fat bass and Mark White’s funk guitar on “Survival Game,” the solo by saxophonist Gary Joynes on “African Empires,” and the African percussion and rhythms on “Cartesian Man” and “The Mega-Minimalist Age.” This is powerful, propulsive music, but what also stands out is the composer’s craft, and how Russell filled each movement with its own little melodic jewels.
Here is video of the Living Time Orchestra, but the only detail provided is that Andy Sheppard is the saxophone soloist.