Meet on the Ledge

Ray Russell
Rites & Rituals
Columbia : 1971

RR, guitar; Tony Roberts, reeds; Harry Beckett, flugelhorn; Nick Evans, trombone; Daryl Runswick, bass; Alan Rushton, drums.

We’re not big fans of traditional jazz guitar. To our ears there’s something neutered and fussy about the instrument in the hands of too many jazz musicians, as if they were afraid to tap into its full potential. We’re more of the Sharrock-Ulmer-Ribot-McLaughlin-circa-1970 school of the fretboard. And to that hallowed list, we’d like to add the underappreciated British shredder Ray Russell.

His early 1970s album Rites & Rituals is a gem of the era, an odd concoction of distorted solos, freakbeat swagger, and punchy swing. Most of the songs are extended multi-part suites, confidently segueing between various modes and styles. Russell brings the noise and the strum, along with compositional deployment of horns, drifting sections of lovely stasis, and outright hard swinging pomp. These lavishly eclectic compositions share a similar feel to David Axelrod’s great William Blake-inspired instrumental records of the same period – Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

As the title suggests, there are also odd echoes of British folk and ritualistic music coloring the edges of the tunes, giving it a distinct flavor.  You can hear it in the stately horn section near the end of “Sarana.” His interests here put Russell within the sphere of Fairport Convention and Comus and other folk luminaries of the time, while also presages the preoccupations of the Ghost Box label. Ultimately, Rites & Rituals is still a jazz record. It’s wide-ranging preoccupations don’t place it so much beyond category (as Duke Ellington might say) but within many categories simultaneously, leaving potential fans scratching their heads on initial impact. Give it a few spins and watch its charms – both ancient and modern – work their magik.

For some more wonderful Russell from this same period, check the recently reissued Secret Asylum, on Reel, featuring much the same band. For a sense of what else Russell has been up to (including Bond films), see here. For the myspace version of RR, enjoy.

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8 Responses to Meet on the Ledge

  1. I saw this band a few times when I was a teenager. They went from periods of pastoral calm to all-out assault. There’s a reissue of Live at the ICA on Jim O’Rourke’s Moikai label with some very nice liner notes by Alan Licht that manage to bring in both Brad Gillis and Al Shorter. Jurek on AMG describes the track Stained Angel Morning as “one of the most psychotic unruly pieces of guitar fury ever recorded”. It’s still available too.

  2. Ray is one of my favorites. Thanks for the post. Though his first LP, “Turn Circle, ” might fall more within the traditional-jazz-guitar camp, it’s still an interesting point from which to approach the leaping-off point. I’d say “Rites & Rituals” and its predecessor, “Dragon Hill,” are the most aligned with Brit-jazz of his catalog, so certainly the comparison with UK folk arrangement is apt (similar well).

    Supposedly there are tapes of Russell’s time in Running Man, where they’re joined by Mongezi Feza and Dudu Pukwana. Yow!

  3. Yow indeed! Wuzzah. (Thanks for RT, btw.)

  4. Awesome! Never heard of this guy. Actually the only musician on this that I have heard of is Harry Beckett, from his work with Chris McGregor. Sweet track that went to some beautiful places. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for the recommendation, haven’t heard of him. One small point – how could you miss out Mr Pete Cosey from your admittedly very short list of 70s guitarists?

  6. Oh and thanks for the mention of Hard Format. If you ever want to do a guest post or guest collection – let me know!

  7. You’re right – Pete Cosey was a total oversight! He’s got a central place in our pantheon.

  8. I just picked up Dragon Hill because of this post. I think Ray Russell is my new favourite guitarist!

    You guys kick it!

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