Tonight is Hal the Weenie | Bleader

Tonight is Hal the Weenie



Hal Russell
  • Hal Russell
In August I DJed between sets at a Hideout show by a terrific group led by bassist Harrison Bankhead. One of my selections was intended to tweak reedist Mars Williams, a member of the band: "Raining Violets," the opening track from the Hal Russell NRG Ensemble's brilliant Hal on Earth. The album was originally issued by the band as a cassette in 1989, but it was released on CD in 1995 by Abduction Records, a defunct Seattle imprint that once released copious amounts of music by Sun City Girls. Williams immediately recognized the track—as a longtime member of the NRG Ensemble, he played on it—and broke into a wide grin. In fact, it seemed like a third of the crowd noticed too—but sadly, Russell, who died in 1992 at age 66, is too often missing from accounts of the 90s free-jazz scene in Chicago.

This situation is especially tragic because, in my view, Russell's wild energy, madcap humor, disregard for propriety or genre convention, and respect for jazz tradition planted many of the seeds for the explosion that was occurring around the time of his death, when free jazz, experimental sounds, postrock, and who knows what else all collided here. NRG Ensemble carried on without Russell throughout the 90s—with Williams and Ken Vandermark occupying the front line—and made some good records, but it was obviously never the same. The group is no longer active, but it's been reconvening at about this time each year to indulge in a wild, woolly romp through the NRG songbook—an evening called "Hal the Weenie" after a Russell original that's also on Hal on Earth.

This year that free-jazz blowout happens tonight at the Beat Kitchen, taking the slot usually occupied by Extraordinary Popular Delusions, a four-piece which includes keyboardist Jim Baker and three former NRG members: Williams, bassist and guitarist Brian Sandstrom, and drummer Steve Hunt. They'll be joined by bassist Kent Kessler (another key ex-NRG member) and guest Dave Rempis on reeds. There will be two sets, starting at 9 PM. Below you can listen to "Raining Violets," but beware—it may set you off on a serious Hal Russell kick, like it did for me.

Hal Russell NRG Ensemble, "Raining Violets":

Today's playlist:

Justin Janer, Following Signs (Janer Music)
Christy & Emily, No Rest (Klangbad)
Christian Scott, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow (Concord Jazz)
Thad Jones, Motor City Scene (Liberty, Japan)
El Tanbura, Between the Desert and the Sea (World Village)