Jazz: Jazz, the art of harmony

George Russell and the Living Time Orchestra Barbican Centre, London

The art of jazz composition, in addition to the usual things such as harmony, counterpoint and thematic development, requires an ability to cut and paste the sounds, styles and skills of the musicians in the band. You need a good ear, a big heart and a thick skin, plus a special sort of ego-free ego (for you may still have to move pianos and buy the sandwiches), but the musical rewards can be enormous - the sound of many "composers" working as one. George Russell (born 1923) is not only one of the great American composers of the post-war period, he is the jazz composer's jazz composer.

Saturday's concert began with the sublime "Stratusphunk" (the 1960 version arranged by Gil Evans) and ended with an encore version of "It's About Time", the title track from his latest CD, which began in a deceptively diaphanous, radio-friendly way before expertly folding into an ecstatic, densely packed finale. The composer seemed to shed 40 years during the concert, and his delight at the full-tilt outpourings of his young band expressed itself in an elegant little dance.

He can be excused a little self-congratulation. Though Russell's influence on the music world has been deep and wide-ranging (via celebrated contemporaries such as Bill Evans, Miles Davies and John Coltrane), his own work has often been marginalised. But not on this occasion. "Stratusphunk" kick- started a wide-ranging programme that included the long, four-movement "Vertical Form VI", for which he added 65 extra musicians drawn from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Paris Conservatoire. This dates from the Seventies, which means it sounds very current, with shuffle hi-hats, electric pianos and bass clarinets in an Altman-esque sprawl.

A smaller line-up played a dazzling version of Russell's early hit "All About Rosie", with a richly voiced piano solo from Steve Lodder and great blowing from Andy Sheppard, who was on wonderful form all evening.

Other star performers included Guy Barker (trumpet), Hiroaki Honshuku (flute) and Billy Ward, whose drumming kept the grooves ozone-fresh while remaining sensitive to Russell's dramatic changes.

(Russell displayed his credentials for the Barbican's American season with "Dialogue for Ornette", for a smaller, mainly student ensemble. Lavishly orchestrated and conducted by Pat Hollenbeck, it would sit quite happily on a programme with Adams, Ives, Zappa and Copland.)

"American Trilogy", played by the fully professional Living Time Orchestra, cycled effortlessly between full-throttle sonic attack and gorgeous orchestration, its subtext of jazz history employed with good humour. "Trilogy" made the most of Russell's heavyweight team: Chris Biscoe's blistering alto sound put a distinctive stamp on the ensemble melodies, Dave Bargeron (trombone) and Stanton Davies (trumpet) excelled in an unaccompanied duet; Brad Hatfield's keyboard cadenza was a Raymond Carver short story morphed into gospel piano and organ.

George Russell danced back and beamed, with a jazz composer's satisfaction that beyond the notes on a page lay the orchestration of diverse, complementary personalities. The result was a torrent of continuous invention that left the audience high on music, smiling at the sound of surprise.

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