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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