Theory, theory, theory 

Easter morning I had a gig.

I'd promised a transplanted Englishman I'd sing bass in the choir of an Episcopalian church that has a small congregation and an even smaller contingent of men who are willing put their rough-hewn talents on display, even in front of so few souls.

But before I suited up for the performance, I was sitting in my apartment and running through some scales on my guitar: the dorian, the mixolydian, the major and minor pentatonics, the lydian and -- I began thinking about theory: how the hymnalists didn't regard it much, but pushed on through bolts and bars to bring sweet melody to their religious rituals.

After the church service, I came home and listened to the only recording I have of a fellow Ohioan named George Russell, a man who qualifies as one of the major theorists about jazz in its history up to this point. Russell's point of view is that of a working musician, composer theorist and teacher. The recording is "So What" by George Russell and the Living Time Orchestra [Blue Note, 1983].

He takes the classic Miles Davis cut and turns it into something -- far out.

But the treatment is grounded in sound musical theory and the entire recording is experimental (for both its time and ours) and illustrates the nether-regions of melody-to-scale-to-chord relationships.

I always am suspicious of people who would turn music, the greatest and commonist of art forms, into an intellectual exercise. But Russell's work on the recording cited puts his theory into practice, and it is a challenging listening experience.

Side one of the tape I have includes "So What," "Rhymes" by Carla Bley and "War Gewesen" by Dave Baker. Side two is consumed by "Time Spiral," a Russell composition that investigates the outer limits of tonal textures.

But why Russell and why now? Simply because his vast musical mind comprehended the various streams of jazz that diverged in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and finally coalesced into "The Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization," his thesis, which has been studied by legions of jazz musicians whose guts told them there was some kind of structure to the music they intuitively played, but which lacked intellectual respectability at the time. The wedding of classical music with the abandon of jazz is a particular Russell hallmark.

And, if for nothing else, Russell deserves a laurel for his composition, "Cubana Be, Cubana Bop" for Dizzie Gillespie, who debuted the tune at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1947.

Russell's career as an educator is something quite aside from his achievement in explaining the structures of jazz during the past 50 years or so. For that, he is, though largely unsung outside musicianly circles, an important contributor to the history of our music.