By Todd Whitesel
Ray Russell is an interpreter of music through guitar. For more than 40 years, this British musician has played music without barriers. In addition to leading bands such as Chopyn, Mouse, and Running Man, Russell has worked with Gil Evans, John Barry, Tina Turner, Phil Spector, The Ronettes, Van Morrison, Art Garfunkel, Dionne Warwick, Bryan Ferry, Jack Bruce, Cat Stevens, Phil Collins, Mark Isham, Georgie Fame and many others. As Russell said while laughing, “I’ve been busy, I guess.”
One of his many fruitful sessions was playing with Evans in The British Orchestra in the early ’80s. His association with the great jazz arranger/composer was the inspiration behind his latest album, Goodbye Svengali (Svengali is an anagram for Gil Evans), where Russell pays tribute to his late friend through music.
Goldmine: A lost recording of Gil Evans playing “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” from 1988 sparked this new album?
Ray Russell: Yeah. It was part of the sessions for RPM [Russell, Simon Phillips, Mo Foster] — a couple of the tracks appeared on an album I did for Polygram called Why Not Now. The album started — I was going to do a duo album — and I discovered the recordings of “Pork Pie Hat” that we did. I put a thing together — some of the stuff was incomplete — into a take and just re-did some of the guitar and bits and pieces. It was going to start as a duo album; it was always really about Gil. From there I got the idea of recording Goodbye Svengali because of the original [Evans’] Svengali album.
And then things kind of escalated. I rang Miles [Evans, Gil’s son], and he ended up playing on one of the tracks — I did the track “Goodbye Svengali” and just sent him the tape to play on, or the “file” as we say now. He just overdubbed it in New York and sent it back; it just kind of started from there really.
What I did was I left the spaces at the front, and then I wrote the melody down on the guitar and piano, which he plays. Then he figured out harmonies. Then he was just free really — the middle and the end was just free-form for him.
How did you become involved with The British Orchestra?
I got a phone call from a trombone player, Malcom Griffiths. He said, “Gil’s coming to London, and he wants to do Ronnie Scott’s [Jazz Club] and a tour, and would you be interested?” Of course I said, “Yeah. Fantastic.” That’s really how we started; we did sort of a European tour and a tour of the U.K. and two weeks at Ronnie’s. From there we formed a relationship — carry on and do things together. Then I had a chance to do the original album; that’s why I went to New York just to record so we could play some stuff together. I think it was the first time that he’d really played as a duo. It was just something that never seemed to happen I guess because no one had ever asked him, you know. [laughs] We just did it, and we formed a really great bond, which isn’t hard with someone like that; it was so fantastic. So that’s how the sessions took place, and that’s how he and Malcolm just asked me to do it. And I’m forever grateful for him to ring me up.
Of course we did the Montreux Jazz Festival with Gil as well, which was interesting because we played some of the [Jimi] Hendrix arrangements.
A lot of people pigeonhole Evans as an arranger, but he was also a composer. There’s a parallel between you as a guitarist and a composer, too. Do you think that helped bring you two together?
Yeah. Harmonically we always saw the same things. It was just everything that I’d always loved about the harmonies he found. We’re very kindred spirits in that way. You’re right — there is a parallel. He did write a lot of stuff; he started writing more later on, really. Some very interesting stuff came out; it’s a shame that he didn’t get more recorded.
Speaking harmonically, what challenges or opportunities did playing the seven-string guitar present on this album?
The opportunity to gain a better technique. [laughs] The seven-strings are interesting because you can get some of the dissonance in the chords — the Gil-like chords, the sharp 11th chords. You can also play roots with them. It’s a bit more pianistic; even though there’s only one extra string it actually gives you the roots to the chords, too. The extra string gives you an extra note and an extra root so you can come across some of the chords Gil played on keyboard. At the beginning of “Goodbye Svengali” those chords are kind of a collage of what he would play say during a solo. So it’s kind of a mirror image of that kind of harmony.
That was written on the seven-string, and that was as far as I could get to emulate Gil’s piano technique and harmonic parts.
Did you listen to George Van Eps or other guitarists who played a seven-string before you recorded this to hear how someone else might approach the seven-string?
What happened was I was in a shop — Paul Herman, the guitar maker, he kind of made this guitar, and it was for sale. It was just like rigged from the Ibanez seven-string to the more “rock-y” version of it. The seven-string went down to an A instead of a B — he had actually made it like that. I just picked it up, and it was just perfect for the job.... And that’s why I thought, “Oh, I can play these chords on this” [laughs]. So I bought it, and the kids didn’t get their Nintendo games and stuff; I got a seven-string instead [laughs]. No, it wasn’t that bizarre. He said, “Take it and try it out,” so I tried it out. When I had it I started to record that track, so it didn’t leave me after that.
The EBow adds another dimension to your music. “Wailing Wall” has an outer-space vibe. What were you looking for sound-wise from the EBow?
I had an original EBow many years ago, and there were a few people using one — I think there was a band called Big Country; they used to use it as sort of a drone thing. I had an original one and did a few drones and then kind of left it....
What the EBow turns out to be: It’s similar to being able to play only one string at a time. It turns out to be a very compositional tool because you can loop it and suddenly build a whole wall of effects; it just becomes a very atmospheric instrument. And it’s different for a guitarist — it just sounds so different to be able to create those compositions, because in the end you can have a thing that’s far beyond what the guitar can originally do.
That technique where you’re actually playing one string and then you change it, you just change [to] the other string. It’s a really strange technique. You’re playing much more modally, of course, when you’re playing on one string, which is good. It affects what you do. On “Wailing Wall” it’s in kind of a very Eastern mode. It’s just live, and then halfway through I just loop one of the phrases, which is kind of a four-bar phrase. Then at the end I loop the meloday and just play slow stuff with the whammy bar. It’s just two loops really, just live loops.
“Now Here’s A Thing” is partially an homage to Tommy Bolin. What attracted you to his playing?
Just the energy, the raw energy. That track is because I always loved the Billy Cobham album Spectrum — I think it’s called “Snoopy” [“Snoopy’s Search”]. I originally wanted to call that track “Return To Snoopy,” but it wasn’t quite right to do that so we ended up with “Now Here’s A Thing” because it’s one of my phrases — I say to people, “Now here’s a thing.” [laughs] So Rik Walton — the guy who coproduced it — said, “You should call it that.” It felt right, because I was so influenced by that track early because it was an early sort of fusion-y track. I loved the way he played kind of a rock solo over the sort of jazz backdrop, really. It’s just sort of a raw energy thing. He was always one of my favorite players.
You could call Goobye Svengali a jazz album, but I don’t think of you exclusively as a jazz musician. You have a song such as “Afterglow” on here, which is a gentle classical guitar piece, and “Blaize” is more of a screaming rocker. What do you bring to jazz and the rest of this music?
I didn’t use the “J” word on this album [laughs] for several reasons.... I didn’t use the “J” word because there are generations of people who aren’t very open to this kind of music, so I just call it “progressive music.” There’s a connection with jazz obviously — Gil was jazz. I feel the need to improvise; that’s why it’s jazz. I also feel the need to be very compositional-based, and that’s one of the things I think is the strength of the album and also it’s one of those parallels again with Gil, where everything was textural and compositional. The solos were all part of it, but it wasn’t just like a 12-bar and then a solo; it’s all kind of organically intertwined together, really. It’s part of the experience. So that’s why it’s progressive, really, and I didn’t use that word. [laughs]
I like the story about working with him on the Absolute Beginners soundtrack when he was handing out notes to the musicians and saying, “This is your note. But if you don’t like it, you can change it.” Have you experimented with an approach like that?
Sometimes you can be too precise in what you want, and if you sometimes lead more casually in the direction of by what you’re playing or writing a sketch, they can fill in the gaps themselves and bring something more to it. That’s what I was trying to do, and I think that’s what Gil did with his direction. In some compositions — with the early Big Band stuff with Miles [Davis] — he was quite exacting, but later on some of the things were more casual. Actually, the outcome of that session was a fantastic sort of chorus of people reinventing their note, which is a fantastic sound.
Davis took that idea to the edge in the late ’60s, and I hear that spirit running through a song such as “Everywhere” on this album.
Yeah. “Everywhere” is kind of one scale, and everything stems from that — the chords, the mode. Basically everybody is improvising over that, so that’s much more of a jazz thing. Although the difference there is people getting into not so much notes but atmospherics. They’re kind of more into sound design, which is a great kind of fusion of ideas.