Goodbye Svengali is the latest release from Ray Russell, the revered jazz guitarist and fusion pioneer. The project is dedicated to Gil Evans, whose nickname "Svengali" is an anagram (scrambled letters) for his name discovered by Geri Mulligan. Russell and Evans were frequent musical collaborators in the 1980s, particularly anytime Evans visited Russell’s native Britain.
Russell’s press pack accurately describes his "idiosyncratic guitar sound marked by an emotional depth, legendary chops, and an approach characterized by visceral, uninhibited wildness." While maximizing up-to-date production techniques, Goodbye Svengali is in many ways a return to an early form of fusion: equal parts art-rock and post-bop jazz. As they say, "the more things change, the more they stay the same." It’s funny how popular he’s become with the hot young "noise-scene vanguard."
The opening track "Everywhere" is certainly one of Russell’s finest compositions. It closely mimics the sound of Miles Davis’ Filles de Killemanjaro, which as it turns out, was the a major but uncredited (and thus the last) joint venture for Davis and Evans. Russell was an early proponent for electrifying jazz at the same time, so his affection for this early fusion is not surprising. It’s ironic, though, since Filles de Killemanjaro’s liner notes report the goal was to simulate guitar sounds without actually using one. Nonetheless, Russell’s tribute is quite good. Though he is only joined by three musicians--Robin Aspland on Fender Rhodes, Amy Baldwin (Russell’s daughter) on bass, and Ralph Salmins on drums--they manage to produce a much larger sound.
The title track, "Goodbye Svengali" is another Russell original. It features Evans’ son, Miles Evans (named after you-know-who) on (you guessed it) trumpet, who plays in an effected style reminiscent of Nils Petter Molvaer. "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" is another weird melding of influences. It is re-edited from a Ray Russell and Gil Evans record date from 1988, perhaps Evans’ last recording. The original Mingus composition was a tribute to Lester Young.
"Wailing Wall" features other-worldly experimentation via an Ebow and and long electronic delay times. Despite the title, the song doesn’t sound overtly Jewish. "Prayer to the Sun/The Fashion Police" is an unabashed foray into funk and hard rock styles, and for that very reason, is one of the least accessible tracks for jazz traditionalists. "So Far Away" is another lushly layered solo piece wherein Russell explores some interesting soundscapes, but somehow never quite arrives. "Now Here’s a Thing" however, is a much more satisfying old-school fusion jam. "Afterglow" is a nice relaxed keyboard/guitar tone poem. "Blaize" sounds like a late 80s sci-fi soundtrack complete with arpeggiated bass, wispy synth pads, echoed percussion, loose piano playing, and blistering guitar distortion.
Before listening to Goodbye Svengali, I knew very little about Ray Russell. But as an unashamed Gil Evans freak, I was intrigued by the many direct and indirect connections. I must say the project is a sincere, albeit uneven tribute. Russell’s individual electric guitar style has very little in common with Evans’ trademark "hanging like a cloud" cool style. It’s true Evans’ arrangement style got much looser by the end of his career, but it never sounded much like this. It was wise for Russell to remain true to his own unique conception, but he should nonetheless prepare himself for some disappointed Gil Evans purists.
Recommended for die-hard Gil Evans collectors, fusion fans, and anyone interested in prodigious electric guitar.
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.