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Ray Russell - Goodbye Svengali

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Artist: Ray Russell

Album: Goodbye Svengali

Label: Cuneiform

Review date: Apr. 9, 2006

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, British guitarist Ray Russell – whom most of us only got to know following the re-releases on Moikai and other labels from the last 10 years – stood at the intersection of the Little Theatre scene (populated by insectoid improv groups like the Spontaneous Music Ensemble) and the post-Extrapolation mainstream. Given to lyrical flights in the middle of buzzsaw frenzies, and taking full advantages of the improvisational possibilities opened up by rock guitar, Russell is a clear antecedent to contemporary celebrated stylists like Nels Cline. Having dropped out for many a year, Mr. Russell has returned with this loving tribute to the late Gil Evans. And if there isn’t quite an abundance of Evans-like arranging detail here, there is an appropriate attention to color, nuance and tension.

Russell’s playing doesn’t quite have the bite it once did. His tone can still be bitingly hot but it’s now heavily processed, incorporating loop effects like a Boomerang (or a similar guitar synth setup) and setting out for territory lately explored by folks like John Abercrombie and Terje Rypdal. It seems to be the inevitable fate of guitarists from Russell’s generation to drift into marshmallow, though thankfully it’s not over-abundant on Goodbye Svengali.

The themes he’s written are tailor-made for gnarly group workouts, and to assist him Russell has called in help from several different rhythm sections, the majority of whom are relatively unknown British players (save for long-standing mate Gary Husband, who plays drums and keyboards on three tracks, and Miles Evans himself, who plays trumpet on the title track). At the center of the small group music is the tonal contrast between Russell’s now ethereal guitar washes and the dirty Fender Rhodes often employed. An ominous electric Miles vibe is inevitable with this kind of instrumentation and sensibility. But as good as the playing often is, there is at times an over-produced rock sheen that I feel detracts a bit from the dark intensity of the playing. This could bother absolutely nobody but me, and shouldn’t be taken as a huge demerit, but it’s there and (coupled with the aforementioned tone issue) hard to miss.

But what ultimately satisfies is the imagination of Russell’s phrasing and his harmonic imagination. Though on the duet version of Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” the Jeff Beck overtones are inevitable, Russell is elsewhere a distinctive stylist. Whether on intimate miniatures like “Wailing Wall” or swaggering funk like “Prayer to the Sun/The Fashion Police,” Russell’s wide-open exuberance (particularly in concert with Husband on many of the standout tracks) cuts through a lot of the bullshit.

By Jason Bivins

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