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The price of a masterpiece

George RussellSometime last year I stopped at a service station halfway up the M1 and, while paying for my petrol, picked up a four-CD set of Northern Soul favourites. Mood and location were behind the impulse purchase. I needed cheering up, and I was close enough to Nottingham to be thinking fondly about 1960s nights at the Dungeon and the Beachcomber, when the sounds of Stax and Motown laid the foundations for what later transpired in the clubs of the north.

And then I realised what I was getting: 100 tracks for £9.99. In other words, 10p a track. And these were pieces — including the famous Wigan Casino “3 before 8” triptych of Dean Parrish’s “I’m On My Way”, Tobi Legend’s “Time Will Pass You By” and Jimmy Radcliffe’s “Long After Tonight Is All Over” — for which collectors parted with fortunes in their original 45rpm vinyl incarnations. It made me wonder about values, intrinsic and acquired. Although this was not a bootleg set, the chances of any of the surviving artists seeing even the tiniest fraction of my £9.99 seemed remote. And it also made me question whether you could possibly feel as strongly about something for which you’d paid 10p as I did when I paid six shillings and eight pence for my new copy of “Long After Tonight Is All Over” on the Stateside label back in 1965.

I’ve been thinking about that again recently since buying a couple of multi-disc sets devoted to jazz artists of the post-bop era on a label called Real Gone Jazz. Today’s purchase, for the princely sum of £6.99 at Soul Jazz Records in Soho, was of a four-CD set containing “seven classic albums” by George Russell (pictured above), the pianist, composer and bandleader who was partly responsible for guiding Miles Davis in the direction of modal jazz and Kind of Blue. There’s nothing misleading about Real Gone’s description of the contents of their package: besides being out of copyright, the seven albums — New York NY, Jazz in the Space Age, Stratusphunk, George Russell Sextet in Kansas City, Ezz-thetics, The Stratus Seekers and The Outer View — are indeed authentic classics, for which Russell’s British admirers were prepared to pay premium import prices on their first appearance between 1959 and 1962.

Russell leads a big band on the first two albums, with John Coltrane and Bill Evans among the sidemen. The remaining five titles are by his sextet (and, in one case, a septet), which I rank alongside the quartets of Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, the Bill Evans-Scott LaFaro-Paul Motian trio and Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop among the most stimulating small groups of their era. As a composer, Russell took bebop in new and provocative directions: his tunes have strong outlines and interesting implications for improvisers. As a bandleader, he persuaded young musicians to produce their very best work: the trumpeters Al Kiger and Don Ellis, the trombonist David Baker and the saxophonists John Pierce, Dave Young and Paul Plummer are all outstanding on these sessions, with Eric Dolphy making an indelible mark as a guest on the Ezz-thetic date. The bassist Steve Swallow — before he took up the electric instrument — and the drummer Joe Hunt formed an alert and swinging rhythm section, one of the most effective of the time. And the startingly original 12-minute version of “You Are My Sunshine” on The Outer View, with Sheila Jordan taking the vocal, is a masterpiece by any standard.

It’s nothing short of amazing to be able to acquire such stuff for so minimal an outlay, a real gift to listeners who might just be setting off into the foothills of this music, even though they won’t be getting the benefit of the full recording information (not even the composer credits), the excellent sleeve notes by such sympathetic critics as Joe Goldberg and Martin Williams, or the beautiful sleeves commissioned by Riverside’s Orrin Keepnews from the gifted designer Ken Deardoff. I just hope that those acquainting themselves with these albums for the first time, all at once, come to value them as much as we did when we saved up for the expensive imports on the Riverside or US Decca labels, our purchase of the individual LPs, spaced over a period of months and years, giving us the chance not just to keep pace with the personal evolution of an outstanding musician but to absorb, memorise and cherish every single note.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. richard lander #

    I know – I got 100 Best Jazz Tunes of the 1950s – a 7 disc compilation on Amazon for £9.99. Absurd and wonderful at the same time

    March 19, 2013
  2. Never a truer word … while price is never the sole arbiter of value and worth, you have to welcome the democratisation of some wonderful music. However, the love of it is also bound up in the (sometimes epic) quest to acquire it.

    March 20, 2013

    Nothing wrong with a bargain – and seven George Russell classics at such a low price must surely have been irresistible; I must get along to Soul Jazz Records soon (via Sister Ray after buying the new Boz Scaggs!). But your mention of Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop prompts me to mention the recent release on Mosaic of a definitive set of their live recordings, including the classic Monterey set, and dates with Dolphy and Coles in the line up; beautifully packaged, great photos, expertly written notes and – most importantly – memorable music made even more exceptional by superb mastering. Wouldn’t a George Russell set on Mosaic be a treat?

    March 21, 2013
  4. Dave Heasman #

    Ezzthetics & The Stratus Seekers came out on Riverside in the UK and cost me over £2 each but The Outer View got a Fontana release and cost a little less. That’s the one I managed to get second-hand. Live in K.C. came out on German Decca but still cost £2. So in the 60s I spent more on the vinyl than I did in 2013 for the 4 CDs. Which were (aren’t now) £5 with free postage from Amazon.

    April 9, 2013
  5. George Foster #

    What’ the sound like on the Russell reissues?
    I got a 4 albums on one CD set of John Lewis, one of jazz’s most underrated pianists. This turned oit to be unlistenable, so badly transferred that it sounded like he was playing an electric piano. I found that lots of the reissues of now-out-of-copyright material (anything recorded more than 50 years ago) don’t do the music any favours. There are honorable exceptions in the reissue of these “twofers” : Rhino do excellent vinyl and CD reissues and BGO seem to source their stuff properly and still fit 2 albums on a CD for £9.99. I leave the really cheap reissues alone.
    Musicians and engineers like Van Gelder, Roy Du Nann, etc took a lot of trouble to get the sound right, and in the interest of saving a few quid people are now buying copies of copies of copies and wondering why the music lacks impact: they can’t listen to what was recorded because the sound has been degraded to a shadow of the original experience. How can you listen to music if you can’t hear what was being played?

    April 10, 2013

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