Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 28 August 1926, Detroit MI; d 5 September 1992, Chicago) Composer, multi-instrumentalist, leader of NRG Ensemble. He moved to Chicago as a teenager, majored in trumpet at the U. of Illinois, though his primary instruments were drums and vibes. He played with Woody Herman and Boyd Raeburn in the 1940s, sat in with Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman small groups, played with Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins etc in Chicago clubs, and in a band led by Joe Daley (tenor sax; b 30 July 1918, Salem OH; d 5 March 1994, Los Angeles); was involved with drugs, fired for nodding out, cleaned up, turned to free-form jazz early '60s and rejoined Daley in a trio with composer/bassist Russell Thorne (Joe Daley Trio At Newport '63 on RCA. Daley never achieved fame or fortune, but never stopped playing, either: he had a day job in the mid-1950s playing on Pat Boone sessions, and said in an interview, 'I needed the money, but I'm glad they didn't put my name on the records.')

Russell had found his own voice by c.1971 and led experimental groups in Chicago including Hal Russell's Chemical Feast, usually with saxophonist Mars Williams (later with the Waitresses, Psychedelic Furs, Liquid Soul). He took up a C-melody sax in 1977 to be able to show sidemen what he wanted and because he found a C-melody cheap, then acquired a tenor and found his true love.

After a long career teaching, playing in everything from dixieland to show bands, he finally assembled the NRG Ensemble in the late 1970s: Chuck Burdelik (b 16 August 1958, Chicago; studied sax with Daley '74-5), bassist Curt Bley (b 27 February 1957, Lombard IL), Steve Hunt on percussion (b 9 August 1954, Geneva IL), Brian Sandstrom on trumpet, guitar, bass etc (b 11 July 1955, Rockford IL). The quintet sounded bigger than it was, playing a dozen instruments in various combinations plus percussion on their first LP Hal Russell NRG Ensemble '81 on Nessa, four Russell tunes including 'Linda Jazz Princess'; next LP Conserving NRG on Principally Jazz '84, produced by Linda Prince, had nine tunes on the CD edition including contributions from Bley, Hunt and Sandstrom: 'Blue Over You' and 'OJN' are tributes to Ellington and his sidemen; Sandstrom's 'Pontiac' (suggested by Sonny Boy Williamson's 'Pontiac Blues') becomes one of the ultimate car/train tunes of jazz/R&B history. The music is bright, biting, witty; it demands attention as serious work but also entertains, with layers and colours and the precision that only a working band can achieve. Eftsoons '81 on Nessa was a duo with Russell on drums, vibes, C-melody, cornet, toy horns etc and Williams on tenor, bells, slide whistle and whatnot, a free communion in surrealistic sounds. The quintet's Generation '82 with guest Charles Tyler, produced by Chuck Nessa, was first issued '90 on Chief in Europe; Russell sang on the title track, sounding like a teenager on speed.

There should have been another set to be called S&F, produced by Prince c.1985, two long tracks called 'Surreal Sound of Music' and 'Fred' (after Fred Astaire) complete with a dancer; but Prince and her master tapes apparently retired.

With the group's first personnel changes in a decade, Williams replaced Burdelik and Kent Kessler replaced Bley. The new lineup appeared at the Moers Festival in '90, and Steve Lake wrote in The Wire: 'Tales of neglect are the stuff of jazz, but I've rarely encountered a case as extreme as this one ... trust me, one of the hottest, hippest, wittiest bands on the globe.' They brought with them a superb cassette, Hal On Earth, then began recording for ECM, produced by Lake: The Finnish/Swiss Tour '90 was a record of their second trip to Europe that year; Hal recorded live in Berlin '91 with Joel Futterman (see his entry), then made his solo Hal's Bells '92 in Oslo, a tour-de-force of overdubbing, worked out back in Chicago with the NRG 3 (with bassist Noel Kuppersmith and drummer Ed Ludwig). The quintet's The Hal Russell Story later that year is a potted history of music as well as of Hal, but during its recording he fell ill. In '89-90 he had made a cassette with Ludwig and James Owens on bass called Don't Wait Too Long Or I Could Be Dead: the music business had almost waited too long; he died following heart surgery, but not before making Williams promise to keep the band's enormous repertoire alive.

Hal On Earth was reissued on CD '95 by Abduction Records of Seattle and turned out to be one of their best; the first (Nessa) album was reissued '97 by Bomba in Japan; meanwhile the NRG Ensemble carried on with composer/reedman Ken Vandermark not replacing Hal, but succeeding him: Calling All Mothers '93 was released on Chicago's Quinnah label, Glenn Good in Cadence describing Vandermark as a 'powerhouse' and the new group as 'well above ghosting for its late leader'. Steve Lake was still their producer; they toured Europe '94, Vandermark associate Daniel Scanlon subbing for Sandstrom. This Is My House '95 on Delmark was the post-Russell NRG's second album, the first without any Russell tunes; Scanlon played violin on Vandermark's 'Cut Flowers' and Don Meckley (from free improvisation trio Liof Minimula) added shortwave radio to Hunt's 'In The Middle Of Pennsylvania'. Hal's restless, jump-cutting style was being ameliorated by a more organic communication and the group was more democratically run, but the precision, integrity and humour remained. Williams was the nominal leader, but Vandermark's presence as both writer and player was important, his clarinets adding another colour. Bejazzo Gets A Facelift '97 on Atavistic may have been their last, and the end of a Chicago era, also the beginning of the next.

The scene that Hal Russell kept alive is now more free. Kessler said (in Coda, interviewed by David Lewis) that Hal's influence was not direct, in the sense that he remained an avant-gardist breaking down walls, while the younger people can and do play anything with less self-consciousness. Nevertheless Russell inspired them, and (with Fred Anderson as a living guru, see his entry) the Chicago scene today is thriving, Vandermark one of its brightest lights (see his entry). The first album was reissued on a Nessa CD in 2012, in astonishingly good sound, with two additional tracks, and the second Nessa album was to follow, not that anyone could ever forget these landmarks in Chicago music.