Jazz: The undiminished power of Hal Russell's NRG Ensemble

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Sometimes it saddens me that the memory and the music of Chicago's singular Hal Russell, who died in 1992 at age 66, have faded so much over the past two decades, because as I see it the free-jazz and improvised-music renaissance here wouldn't have happened without him. Drummer Steve Hunt, reedists Ken Vandermark and Mars Williams, and bassists Brian Sandstrom and Kent Kessler are all veterans of his mighty NRG Ensemble, and that group's DIY, go-for-broke aesthetic informs much of the music still produced in town. Russell started out as a bop drummer and in the 50s often gigged in pickup combos backing some jazz's biggest stars—Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan—but he first made his mark playing an early strain of free jazz in the Joe Daley Trio.

He formed the NRG Ensemble in the late 70s, and though he continued to drum, he shifted his focus to the saxophone—which he picked up in his 40s (he also began playing the cornet, albeit with decidedly less authority). By then Russell had become entranced by energy music a la Albert Ayler—he once created a top-ten album list that included nine records by Ayler and one by Gene Krupa. He kept free jazz alive in Chicago throughout the 80s, when it had largely disappeared from the jazz landscape. Onstage his persona was part prankster, part crazy old coot, and no matter how intense and scorching the music got, the band always looked like they were having a blast—a vibe that was totally infectious for the audience. Russell's rapport with fire-breather Williams was particularly exciting, and when they played off each other while the rhythm section barreled forward at full-speed, it made for a dizzying spectacle. In the final years of his life, Russell got unexpected yet well-deserved recognition via his signing to ECM Records, which released three albums of his music before he died.

Most the band's early work was released by Nessa Records, and recently the label issued the band's self-titled 1981 debut on CD for the first time, with new artwork and two raucous bonus tracks (previously unreleased, they come from a demo tape the band submitted to the label). The music's unhinged energy hasn't dimmed at all with time, and in some ways it seems more prescient and vital than ever. This early version of the band included Hunt and Sandstrom along with bassist Curt Bley and reedist Chuck Burdelik. Below you can check out "Linda Jazz Princess." "Seven Spheres." (Sorry for mislabeling the track below).

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