Elixir Collection

Preview Song from Elixir Collection

Elixir Collection

Hal Russell's Chemical Feast

(from John Corbett's liner notes) By the time he made his first commercially released LP with the NRG Ensemble in 1981, Hal Russell had already spent the better part of a decade experimenting with different sidemen, formations and instrumentations. Russell started leading bands while in living in Florida at the tail end of the ‘60s, and on his return to Chicago he set out to form an ideal working unit. Russell toughed out the ‘70s without making a record, but he didn’t refrain from documenting the shifting lineups and evolving musical ideas along the way. In fact, when he died, he left a cache of hundreds of recordings in the care of his right-hand man, saxophonist Mars Williams. These extraordinary tapes provide an incomplete yet fascinating survey of Russell’s pre-NRG career (as well as the lesser known NRG years)- and over time, the Unheard Music Series intends to make the most arresting and significant of these available to the public. We commence the Hal Russell Archive miniseries with this single concert, recorded informally on March 5, 1979, at Elixir Gallery- a storefront art space on North Clark Street, part of a month of Monday night performances by Hal Russell’s Chemical Feast. Chemical Feast was something of an interim amalgam. Bassist Russ Ditusa and vibraphonist George Southgate had been working with Russell for some time already, in various groups at the loft concerts Hal held weekly in the unfinished attic of his house. Hal convened the ferocious frontline of Spider Middleman and Mars Williams to replace reed player Chuck Burdelik with whom Russell had been working since early in ‘78. After a stint at the Creative Music Studio, in the mid-70s, Williams was living as a cowboy in Colorado, slinging his horn on his back, riding to the top of a mountain and blowing. He had a hard time finding sympathetic players, but in Boulder he discovered a like-minded saxophonist, Spider Middleman, and together they formed the band Corner Culture with trumpet player Hugh Ragin. When Williams returned to Chicago in ‘78, he brought Middleman with him. They went to a Jazz Vespers gig (a Sunday series in a Chicago suburb) where they heard Russell playing with Burdelik. Mars talked with Hal, arranged to come to the loft, jam. Spider and Mars went, and Hal immediately added the two of them. For a time, there were three saxophonists. You can hear Mars offering encouraging whoops and hollers behind Hal’s dadaistic solo on "Four Free", one of the oldest and most durable compositions in the book, a themeless improvising structure that Russell used to play with the Joe Daley Trio in the early ‘60s. The evening concert featured two Ornette Coleman tunes, "Broadway Blues" and "Airborne", both taken from Ornette’s Blue Note sessions with Redman and John Coltrane’s rhythm section (Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones). "Kahoutek" spotlights the joyous noise of Spider and Mars, while Williams’ other piece, "March of the Cellulite Goddesses" gives a good sense of the playful, whimsical, sometimes perverse sense of humor that pervaded most of Hal’s undertakings. The composition "Manas" is one of several Fluxus-like conceptual-pieces that Russell referred to as “tone poems”. This is a snapshot of Hal Russell in action on the cusp of his next big move. A month later, when the band played the same venue again on April 16, Chemical Feast had a new handle: Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble. A star was born.