CULT CLASSIC: GENE RUSSELL-NEW DIRECTION.
Cult Classic: Gene Russell-New Direction.
In 1969, pianist Gene Russell and percussionist Dick Schory founded Black Jazz Records in Oakland, California. The nascent label’s raison d’être was “to promote the talents of young African American jazz musicians and singers.” This was only part of their vision for their new label.
They were determined that Black Jazz Records would released an alternative to what they saw as the old school jazz that was popular at the time. They wanted to release an alternative to traditional jazz, and this included albums that featured political and spiritual influenced music. However, spiritual jazz was just part of the Black Jazz Records’ story.
Between 1971 and 1975 Black Jazz Records released twenty albums that included everything from free jazz and funk to soul-jazz and spiritual jazz.
Although the Oakland-based released twenty albums during the five years it was in existence, this was a lot more albums than similar sized labels. That was no surprise.
Before Dick Schory cofounded Black Jazz Records he had founded the Chicago-based Ovation Records, which was a successful country and western label. Not only was it providing the funding for Black Jazz Records, it was also distributing its releases. This gave the label a helping hand and meant it had an edge on its competitors.
Other labels looked on enviously as the Black Jazz Records began. The new kid in town had a bigger budget that its competitors and had a distribution deal in place from day one. Label owners watched on wondering what Black Jazz Records’ first release would be?
Fittingly, Black Jazz Records’ first release was Gene Russell’s sophomore album New Direction which was released in 1971. It was the first of five albums the label released during its first year in existence.
After cofounding Black Jazz Records much of Gene Russell’s time was spent running the nascent label. Despite this, he still found the time to write, record and release New Direction which was the followup to his 1969 debut album Up and Away. The pianist led a trio on an album of instrumental easy listening which was released by Decca Records. His sophomore album found Gene Russell’s music moving in a New Direction.
Just like his debut album New Direction was an album of cover versions. Gene Russell covered Neal Hefti’s Black Orchid, Richard Carpenter’s Hitting The Jug, Ann Ronell’s Willow Weep For Me and Eddy Harris’ Listen Here. They were joined by Bronislaw Kaper and Ned Washington’s On Green Dolphin Street, Horace Silver’s Silver’s Serenade, Henry Crosby, Stevie Wonder and Sylvia Moy’s My Cherie Amour plus Gene Harris’ Making Bread. These tracks became New Direction.
Joining Gene Russell who recorded, arranged, produced and played piano on New Direction were drummer Steve Clover, bassists Henry Franklin and Henry Glover plus Tony William on congas. The recorded the eight tracks that became the first album released on Black Jazz Records, New Direction.
When New Direction was released the album was well released by critics who were excited about Gene Russell and Dick Schory’s groundbreaking new label. Here was a label was promising to release the latest jazz releases. It was a case of out with the old and in with the new at Black Jazz Records. This began with Gene Russell’s sophomore album New Direction which launched the new label.
Sadly, when New Direction was released it wasn’t the commercial success that Gene Russell had hoped. That was despite being promoted properly and the label having a distribution deal in place. It was disappointing start for Gene Russell and Dick Schory’s new label.
When New Direction is best described as mostly a straight-ahead piano album. It features a trio that’s led by pianist Gene Russell. However, on some tracks the trio are augmented by conga player Tony William. Sometimes, the music heads in the direction of modal jazz and soul-jazz, while other times the music is sweet, funky and soulful. Gene Russell plays the piano with an enviable fluidity but for much of the album ensures the music swings. The rest of the band follows his lead throughout New Direction.
It’s an album of familiar songs, old favourites and standards. Gene Russell sets the bar high with his cover of Black Orchid which opens the album is one of the highlights. So is Hitting The Jug which follows hard on its heels. Other highlights include Listen Here, a stunning remake of Silver’s Serenade and Making Bread which closes the album on a high. Even the standard Willow Weep For Me takes on a new meaning and heads in a New Direction thanks to Gene Russell and his multitalented band who had the honour of playing on the first album released by Black Jazz Records.
New Direction was a vast improvement on Gene Russell’s debut album Up and Away, which had been released two years earlier in 1969. This was the start of a new chapter for Gene Russell and he followed New Direction up with Talk To My Lady in 1973. Sadly, both albums failed to find the audience they deserved and were underrated by jazz aficionados.
It was only in the early nineties that a new generation of DJs and record collectors rediscovered the twenty albums that Black Jazz Records released between 1971 and 1975. This included the first album that the label released Gene Russell’s New Direction. It was the one that got away for Black Jazz Records.
Nowadays, New Direction is the most sought after album of the twenty albums that Black Jazz Records released between 1971 and 1975. Very few copies of the album come up for sale and when they do, copies of New Direction change hands for large sums of money. No wonder, Gene Russell’s sophomore finds the pianist leading a talented and versatile band as his music moved in a New Direction on what’s one of his finest albums.
Cult Classic: Gene Russell-New Direction.