Review Summary: Thirty-five years on: Arthur Russell meandering through translucent pathways
Writing anything at all on Arthur Russell is an intimidating prospect. There are so many areas of context to be spelled out, each as important as the other: the size of his discography, the styles at play and the pioneering scope behind them, the calibre of his training as a composer, his untimely passing in 1992, and the discrepancies between his posthumously released albums’ dates of emergence and their times of recording. All of this has been covered in engrossing detail by others - yet to cut a long, complicated story quite unfairly short, Russell was a classically trained cellist recognised predominantly after his death for groundbreaking work in the ‘70s and ‘80s New York disco scene and for his experimental solo work, most notably on his 1986 ambient pop album World of Echo
. Russell recorded prolifically during his lifetime but incessantly reworked his tracks and released a very limited number in final form; as such, the majority of his solo work has been compiled and released outside of his lifetime.
Out of that archive comes this lovely thirty-five year old live tape, a performance from March 1985 released by Roulette and titled as such for convenience sake. For anyone already versed in Russell’s discography, this live offers up a range of easter eggs, various pieces in early stages of development that were later included on later releases. However, the recording’s broader appeal isn’t particularly esoteric: it places Russell’s organic, winding sound in a performance environment appropriate for showcasing the seemingly spontaneous, ambiguous or nebulous aspects of his sound.
A suitable crash course in these comes in the first chunk of the piece, which is reserved almost entirely for Russell himself. This is the most World of Echo
-esque material here, though less focused: Russell’s voice and amplified cello are at once consistent to their own rhythms and phrases yet dreamlike in the way they are voiced and are - or aren’t! - developed. It’s as though he makes his way over a set of translucent pathways, self-evidently existent yet frustrating for anyone determined to view them in fuller clarity. This applies in particular to his vocals, the most natural point of reassurance for a disoriented listener. Listen cursively and they may come off as unsatisfying or even glib, chewing over the same motifs and words without any apparent need to extract more than a self-contained utterance from each. His cello meanders one way and his voice another - or so it might seem. Pay closer attention and these compositions are the sound of a musician in close mediation with himself; the ebb and flow of Russell’s cello may be evasive in many ways, but its endlessly shifting dynamics make for a natural undercurrent for his voice to ride over, a gentle challenge for stable footing that warrants a simplistic, unhurried approach in his delivery. This comes of as graceful and slightly haunting, giving the music a decidedly idiosyncratic sense of progression. Pieces start and end according to their own veiled logic, rewarding anyone patient enough to bear with Russell throughout his cyclical, uncontoured motifs and minute permutations, but thoroughly resistant to preconceptions of how else they might have unfolded. Nowhere is this more obvious than at around the nineteen minute mark, at which point Russell’s cello picks up weight and distortion, kicking into gear and approaching something ominously close to a conventional crescendo. Such a move would be unacceptably crass, it turns out: the piece quickly retreats back to its central refrain as though to underline the degree to which this is the music of gentle slopes and slow rivers, not of polarised peaks and valleys.
For those struggling to self-orientate within this soundscape, it may come as a relief to hear the recording becomes a band piece at around the twenty-one minute mark. His foundation by now throughly established, Russell’s vocals give way to a trombone and keys, and so begins an instrumental jam of sorts. However, all is not so straightforward; despite the arrangement being a little more familiar and inviting, its development feels a little tricky to hold onto. Rather than noodling off into extended phrasings or full solos, the cello and trombone stick tight to the off-beat keyboard lilt. Their performances seem freeform yet every variation is very short-lived, as though the keyboard’s chords hold the rest of the band on a leash. I want to say it feels like a nod to the self-contained intensity of disco rhythms, where every two or four bars represents a fresh start of sorts for those moving their bodies in time, but this piece is a little jittery to feel truly danceable. It’s strangely appealing in any case. Eventually the trombone runs its course and Russell’s cello fills its space, becoming more and more adventurous and extensive in its forays; the jam does not overstay its welcome, but you get the sense that it could have gone on for hours.
The final two pieces (from around thirty-two and thirty-nine minutes, respectively) are the most forthright here. The first of these initially returns to the foundation of Russell alone, but it moves with more palpable momentum than the airier early pieces. There’s a weight and confidence to his vocals in particular that render the keyboard almost unnecessary when it eventually returns; there’s an obvious sense that Russell is a man in need of no support throughout this piece, convenient as it is for us to hear the keys lay down the skeleton of the rhythm underpinning his cello lines. Conversely, the final piece places the keys front and centre. This by far the most upbeat instalment and makes for a bright, albeit protracted note to round things off. The groove here is deceptively complex at first, a repeated two-bar phrase that is sure to inspire anyone to sway along but, true to form, is unlikely to elicit coordinated dancing from any but the bravest of listeners. Irregardless, it proves to be a firm anchor for perhaps the most deeply memorable of Russell’s vocal melodies, a loosely jazz line sung over a loosely funk backing. This appropriately oddball pairing carries the performance through its close, the cello orbiting the keys and ejecting beautiful melodies and thrilling shrillness in equal measure until the momentum fades and all comes to a natural rest.
For all this recording’s undisguised composite and open-ended rumination over musical themes that would be finalised elsewhere, it feels complete and satisfying as a performance, if not as a composition. Running a compare/contrast of the various pieces here would be moot; far more important is the way in which they signpost a development of sorts, unimposing shifts of gear that foster the performance’s spark, whatever form it may take from motif to motif, repetition to repetition, minute to minute. This piece’s most satisfied listeners will on the one hand keep their ears trained on its many cyclical nuances, no two of which are ever identical, but at the same time they will find it essential to keep an open mind and to avoid second-guessing the logic of Russell’s performance. It’s a strange and occasionally slightly awkward balance to strike, yet doing so feels like its own kind of meditation - and a thoroughly relaxing one at that.