Tribute to Hal Russell | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Tribute to Hal Russell


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Like almost everyone who worked with drummer, vibist, saxist, and trumpeter Hal Russell, bassist Mike Staron came away from the experience a changed man. Russell was the wild-eyed but surprisingly amiable soul at the heart of the NRG Ensemble, and Staron played in that musical maelstrom on and off from the mid-80s until Russell's death in 1992, mostly as a substitute. By the early 90s he was a busy jobbing bassist, and cherished his occasional gigs with NRG as his only chance to stretch out. During that period the band's wildly creative projects included "The Surreal Sound of Music," in which they dismembered themes from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical while a highlight reel from the Julie Andrews film version flickered on a screen behind them. In 1991, Staron arranged to document his work with Russell: he chose a trio format, restricting the multi-instrumentalist to sax and trumpet and enlisting dynamo drummer Rick Shandling; since he'd booked studio time at Sparrow Sound Design, Staron knew he could count on owner Bradley Parker-Sparrow to augment a couple tracks with his brooding, chromatic piano. The resulting album, Albert's Lullaby, sat on a shelf for the rest of the decade; Sparrow's label, Southport, finally released it a few months ago, and it provides a wonderful time-capsule glimpse of Russell's careening, explosively accented tenor and soprano playing--as well as the flights of fancy he could inspire, even from an intermittent sideman like Staron. The bassist explores a rich range of unusual effects on the album, from spluttering pizzicato to an uncanny imitation of whale song on the Albert Ayler composition "Ghosts"; here he'll play with Shandling, Sparrow, and reedist Rich Fudoli, whose ability to leap from gentle to mental makes him a fitting replacement for Russell. Wednesday, 8:30 PM, Pops for Champagne, 2934 N. Sheffield; 773-472-1000 or 773-281-8510. This show is part of Southport Records' seventh annual festival, which runs from Monday through next Saturday, June 24, at Pops, the MCA, the Cultural Center, and the Jazz Record Mart. For details, see the jazz listings in this section, call 773-281-8510, or visit Neil Tesser

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lauren Deutsch.

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