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Hal Russell's Chemical Feast



From the late '50s, when he played drums on some of the earliest free jazz recordings as a member of the Joe Daley Trio, until his death in 1992, Chicago multi-instrumentalist Hal Russell played an important role in the evolution of America's progressive jazz movement. Russell didn't begin making his own records until the 1980s, earning a living as a session man and freelance performer, despite fronting a series of lineups beginning in the late '60s. While Russell released no records during the '70s, he did make a vast number of recordings, which he left in the care of his chief co-conspirator of this era, saxophonist Mars Williams, and which Atavistic has begun to release through its great Unheard Music series.

Hal Russell's Chemical Feast was a late '70s Russell-fronted lineup featuring Williams -- who would join Russell in the '80s in the better-known NRG Ensemble -- saxophonist Spider Middleman, vibraphonist/percussionist George Southgate, and bassist Russ Ditusa. In 1979, the quintet played a month long series of gigs at a Chicago storefront art space called Elixir, including one recorded informally on May 5 and now released under the name Elixir. The smoking sax duo kicks it hyperdrive repeatedly throughout the seven-song set with some ferocious, mind-blowing improvisation that recalls Albert Ayler's terrifying saxophone acrobatics. On one track, Russell, a onetime trumpet player who'd been experimenting with the tenor sax at the time, gets out from behind the drum set to join in some serious sax warfare. On the remainder of the recording, Russell anchors a blistering rhythm section. The recording is warm, loose, and intimate, the musicians' whoops and hollers and the audience's occasional smatterings of applause adding immediacy to the band's frenetic improvisation. Elixir is a great piece of hot live improvisational jazz; it also serves as a nice blueprint for the Chicago improvisational renaissance of the '90s spearheaded by the likes of latter day NRG member Ken Vandermark and Unheard Music curator John Corbett.

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