Abduction Releases By

Hal Russell & the NRG Ensemble

Learn more about Hal Russell.

Hal on Earth
ABDT 005 CD (1995)
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"Polio-inducing to realise that the worldly vision of Harold Luttenbacher has been inanimate for nearly 1500 days. That's two to six head-extending records we've been screwed out of, which makes the urge to stick a horn in Hal's corpse and push a last few continent-shaking cries out of his gut a lot more than 'palpable'. So does this reissue of a bone-melting 1989 cassette, a kind of lube-job studio-prep for the massive Finnish/Swiss Tour a year later. While that disc remains, listener-flotation-wise, the Ensemble's true magic carpet, Hal On Earth's peaks are more brain-lifting and at best differ from Tour only in that one's applause goes unaccompanied. Russell may have listed nine Ayler recs in his all-time top ten but his true attribute was a muscular lifting of rock's rhythmic weight into the thin air of lunge-forward, head-lightening free jazz, something Albert himself hopefully intended before the last granules of usable gray matter dribbled out of his ears. It'd be nice to say such musical advances didn't die with the body, but it'd also be nice to say the Sun City Girls record for ECM. That both would be lies makes Hal Russell's death an overwhelming reason to comtemplate enacting one's own."

— Marc Masters

Track Titles

  1. Raining Violets
  2. Autumn Squeeze
  3. Calling all Mothers
  4. Ode to Monica Chavez
  5. Monica's Having a Baby
  6. Stay Cinderella
  7. Dance of the Spider People
  8. Hal on Earth
  9. Lunceford
  10. Hal the Weenie
  11. Temporarily

'Hal on Earth' by Hal Russell and the NRG Ensemble

(b 28 Aug. '26, Detroit MI; d 5 Sep. '92, Chicago)
From the MusicWeb Encyclopedia of Popular Music

Hal Russell

Composer, multi-instrumentalist, leader of NRG Ensemble. Moved to Chicago as a teenager, majored in trumpet at U of Illinois, though his primary instruments were drums and vibes. Played with Woody Herman, Boyd Raeburn '40s, sat in with Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman small groups, played with Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins etc in Chicago clubs, in band led by Joe Daley (tenor sax; b 30 July '18, Salem OH; d 5 March '94 LA); was involved with drugs, fired for nodding out, cleaned up, turned to free-form jazz early '60s, rejoined Daley in trio with composer/bassist Russell Thorne (Joe Daley Trio At Newport '63 on RCA); found his own voice c'71 and led experimental groups in Chicago incl. Hal Russell's Chemical Feast, usually with saxophonist Mars Williams (later with the Waitresses, Psychedelic Furs).

He took up C-melody sax '77 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 '78 - '80: Chuck Burdelik (b 16 Aug. '58, Chicago; studied sax with Daley '74 - '75), bassist Curt Bley (b 27 Feb. '57, Lombard IL), Steve Hunt on percussion (b 9 Aug. '54, Geneva IL), Brian Sandstrom on trumpet, guitar, bass etc (b 11 July '55, Rockford IL).

The quintet sounds bigger than it is, playing a dozen instruments in various combinations plus percussion on first LP Hal Russell NRG Ensemble '81 on Nessa, four Russell tunes incl. 'Linda Jazz Princess'; next LP Conserving NRG on Principally Jazz '84 prod. by Linda Prince had nine tunes on CD incl. 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 is 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 was issued '90 on Chief in Europe; Russell sang on the title track, sounding like a teenager on speed.

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, 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 (incl. 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 was 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 the Chicago 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 remain. Williams was the nominal leader, but Vandermark's presence as both writer and player is important, his clarinets adding another colour; they also worked in a duo called Cinghiale (pron. 'chin-ga-ley'); they released Hoofbeats Of The Snorting Swine '97 on EDM.

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) the Chicago scene today is thriving.

Williams gigged with the industrial rock band Die Warzau, and formed a sextet late '95 with Vandermark and Hunt to play Albert Ayler's music. Vandermark was setting the pace in the '90s, forging all his influences (everything from Texas tenors to Anthony Braxton) and playing in every conceivable format: on Chicago's Okkadisk label, he played with Hunt and pianist Jim Baker on the eponymous Caffeine, and with Kessler and drummer Curt Newton as Steelwool Trio. His own albums as leader incl. Concert For Jimmy Lyons '92 on Stoidal Circus, Standards and Utility Hitter '95 on Quinnah, the latter with the Barrage Double Trio: Vandermark, Newton and bassist Nate McBride on one channel, Williams, Kessler and Hamid Drake on the other. Peter Brötzmann came to Chicago to make a trio album and there was a two-tenor blow with Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson (and Kessler and Hunt); the DKV Trio (Hamid Drake, Kessler and Vandermark) recorded with Anderson, all this on Okka, and contributed their own live set to the first in a series of limited edition CDs on that label. Single Piece Flow '96 on Atavistic by the Ken Vandermark 5 incl. Williams, Kessler, Jeb Bishop on trombone and guitar, Tim Mulvenna on drums; Real Time '96 on Eighth Day Music was a quartet called Steam: Vandermark, Mulvenna, Kessler and Baker.