• Ann Nessa
  • Hal Russell

Some of my greatest experiences with live music came courtesy of the eccentric multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Hal Russell, whose work with his NRG Ensemble brought gonzo wit, fierce improvisation, and boundless energy to performance after performance. During the late 80s and early 90s, the group was a fixture at the great subterranean bar Lower Links, playing madcap sets that generated laughter as much as awe. As an observer of the local free-jazz and improvised-music scene, I feel Russell’s importance to what came in his wake over the last couple of decades is undiminished. Not only did folks like Mars Williams, Steve Hunt, Kent Kessler, Brian Sandstrom, and Ken Vandermark work alongside him, but Russell’s wry sensibility, fearlessness, and refusal to take himself too seriously provided a crucial creative template for what was to come. Russell suffered a fatal heart attack in September 1992—he was 66—in the midst of gaining well-deserved, criminally belated international recognition after he signed with ECM Records in 1991, which released three terrific, idiosyncratic albums by him.

The final record was recorded just five weeks before his death, and it wasn’t issued until the following year: The Hal Russell Story literally told the bandleader’s story, from swing drummer to fire-breathing free jazz saxophonist, a guy who once created a desert-island disc list that included nine Albert Ayler records and a single title by Gene Krupa. The sprawling album featured Russell narrating his own life, reading a “libretto” composed by the record’s producer Steve Lake from rough sketches penned by the musician.

Next Thursday the surviving members of the NRG Ensemble are joined by Vandermark (who had his first steady gig in Chicago in the band, replacing Williams for a spell) and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm for a performance of The Hal Russell Story at the Pritzker Pavilion, with the libretto performed by the acclaimed Chicago actor Michael Shannon. (Full disclosure: the concert is part of the city’s Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz series, and I’m an unpaid volunteer on the programming committee.) It’s tough to single out a specific piece from the 18-part suite to play here, since the album really works best as a whole, traversing the styles and eras that Russell lived through, but below you can check out “Wood Chips,” a tweak on Woody Herman’s “Woodchopper’s Ball.” (Russell played in Herman’s group in 1943.)


Today’s playlist:

Christian Wolff, For Piano I/For Pianist/Burdocks (Wergo)
Pete Zimmer, Prime of Life (Tippin’)
Billy Bang, Da Bang! (TUM)
Bobby Taylor, The Motown Anthology (Motown, UK)
Gjallarhorn, Rimfaxe (Westpark Music)