This may well be the most morbid week I have encountered since I started blogging. I just discovered (due to sluggishness on the part of The New York Times in releasing the story) that this past Monday, when I was writing up my reaction to reading Joshua Kosman's obituary for Michael Steinberg on the San Francisco Chronicle Web site, was also the day on which George Russell died. Perhaps the delay reflected that fact that Russell was not that familiar to the general public. To this day he may still be best remembered for his collaboration with Dizzy Gillespie on the two-sided "suite" recorded on a single RCA Victor 78, "Cubana Be" and "Cubana Bop." This was one of Gillespie's earliest ventures into Afro-Cuban jazz. Russell was his arranger; and his most notable contribution was the introduction to "Cubana Be," one of his earliest departures from conventional scales in favor of the modal scales that could be traced back to Ancient Greece.
Ben Ratliff's Times obituary provides a telling anecdote about Russell's sense of self in his practice of jazz:
He later moved to New York to play drums with [Benny] Carter’s band, but he gave up the instrument as soon as Max Roach was called in to replace him. “Max had it all on drums,” he said. “I decided that writing was my field.”
Like Lennie Tristano, he had an intense drive to get at how things ticked; and, again like Tristano, his reputation was far stronger within the "brotherhood" of practitioners than in the "external" world of casual listeners. (That need to understand how things ticked, of course, meant that his approach to jazz was analogous to the one that Merce Cunningham took to dance and Michael Steinberg took to the art of writing about music, which makes this week's sense of loss all the greater.)
Looking over my own collection, I discovered that I have eight Russell CDs (as well as the 2-CD collection of the complete RCA Victor recordings made by Dizzy Gillespie). I honestly cannot remember how I accumulated those eight CDs, but I think the collection began with the Jazz Workshop recording by The George Russell Smalltet. I may have been drawn to this recording because Bill Evans was Russell's pianist. That CD gave me my first taste of Russell's own compositional voice, after which I would go after every opportunity to add another one to my collection. When I started taking my business to True Blue Music, I encountered The African Game, which I think was his only Blue Note session. My wife fell in love with that recording from its very first notes.
Regarding Russell's theoretical interest in modality, I have to confess that I am still trying to get my ears around it, particularly his focus on the Lydian mode. I suspect that this mode appealed to Russell because of the prominent position of the tritone, the notorious diabolus in musica ("the Devil in music") in the history of Western music. The Wikipedia entry for this mode illustrates it with the song "Maria" from West Side Story. Leonard Bernstein, of course, never concealed his enthusiasm for the innovations taking place around him in jazz; and I would be surprised if Bernstein had not been aware of Russell's pursuits. (His interest in Tristano's work has been documented.) "Maria" may well have been a product of Bernstein taking some of Russell's ideas and putting his own twist on them.
Nevertheless, by the middle of the twentieth century, the devil had been exorcised from the tritone as much as the structural functions of harmony had been emancipated from dissonance. By the time "Maria" came along, the tritone was not the big deal it once was. Consequently, whether or not Russell should be remembered for his theories may be little more than an academic question; but his practices played a vital role in how jazz progressed, particularly in the middle of the twentieth century. Thus, the last word on Russell may parallel the epitaph for Christopher Wren:
Lector, si monumentum requiris, Circumspice.
[Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.]
If you seek Russell's monument, listen to just about any jazz recording after 1947 (the year of the "Cubana Be"/"Cubana Bop" session)!