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Albert’s Lullaby by Hal Russell Michael Staron Sparrow Rick Shandling

Albert’s Lullaby contains some of the last recordings of Hal Russell before his untimely passing in 1992. Southport is promoting the disc as such and while this might be a good marketing strategy, it is actually bassist Michael Staron who anchors the material. Four of the nine cuts feature Russell and Staron playing with drummer Rick Shandling. Three tracks have pianist Sparrow accompanying Russell and Staron. Another is an electronic music composition from Staron who also delivers a solo bass reading of the Albert Ayler composition "Ghosts." The foray in electronic music suffers if only because it is out of place in these surroundings but the reading of "Ghosts" is wonderful. Staron uses a wide variety of tones to create a theatric and appropriately spooking feel.

The influence of Ayler shows up in other places as well. As you may have guessed by now, Ayler is the namesake of the title cut and Russell delivers some impassioned blowing on it. Staron composed this piece and references both Ayler’s sound and his method by making it an adaptation of Johoannes Brahms' Lullaby. On both this cut and a cover of another Ayler tune, "Vibrations," Shandling puts in some notable work on the skins. His use of snare drum rolls as part of his overall package of moving the music forward is especially impressive.

This is more than homage, however. One of the additional cuts with Shandling has the trio mocking show tunes while the other, "Kyrie and Agnus Dei," is based on Gregorian chants. (It is worth nothing that these recordings happened in 1991, roughly three years ahead of the period when Gregorian chants became chic.) Russell plays trumpet on the latter and listeners will note that he is less sure of himself in this environment. The quick wit and virtuosity that he displays with a saxophone gives way to a drawl on the trumpet. Still Russell squeezes unmistakable emotions out of his horn.

Finally there are three spontaneous improvisations with Russell, Staron, and Sparrow. Fans of Matthew Shipp will recognize many of the elements of Sparrow’s playing. He can create long and tense streams that are rewarding when focused on and beautiful when heard as embellishing other musicians. Sparrow adds a funk influence to the music and even does some slap bass work early on in the over 25 minute long "Who’s There?" "Aural" is shorter -although by no means short as it comes in at 14 minutes and 47 seconds- and quieter but a more intense piece. Staron’s melodically odd bass playing is the real highlight here. The disc ends with the less than 90 second long "To Groove" which lives up to the title but doesn’t give listeners enough to chew on.

Despite the weak closer and the other misstep into electronic music, there is still plenty to like on Albert’s Lullaby. Those who like good bass playing in the creative improvised category should especially consider picking this up.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Hal Russell Michael Staron Sparrow Rick Shandling
  • CD Title: Albert’s Lullaby
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2000
  • Record Label: Southport
  • Musicians: Hal Russell (saxophone, trumpet), Michael Staron (bass, modular Moog synthesizer, Teac 4-track), Sparrow (piano), Rick Shandling (drums)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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