Calling All Mothers Reviews

NRG Ensemble - Calling All Mothers

from New Art Examiner, Summer 1994
Hearsay column, written by John Corbett

Among the saddest and most poignant stories in the music world of
late is that of Chicago saxophonist, trumpeter, drummer, and all-
around nut Hal Russell. Russell, who began his musical career as a
journeyman jazz drummer in the '40s, backing everyone from Billie
Holiday to Peter, Paul and Mary, took part in indigenous Windy City
free-jazz experiments during the late-'50s and early '60s as part
of the Joe Daley Trio. Tenor saxophonist Daley - who recently
passed away - remained tied to bebop, even in later free excursions.

But Russell, who picked up sax and trumpet in the '70s, grew in his
commitment to unconventional music, music that both harked back to
free jazz (at home, he listened almost exclusively to records by
saxophonist Albert Ayler, cornetist Don Cherry, and drummer Sonny
Murray), but also music that touched base with the subversive,
devilish good humor of vaudeville and another, more indescribable
home-grown element that was all Hal. For the purposes of siring a
brood of such crazy nusical conceptions, Russell formed his working
group, the NRG Ensemble.

In September, 1992, at age 66, Russell died. Bizarrely, cruelly,
prophetically, this happened just after he and the NRG Ensemble had
finished recording The Hal Russell Story (ECM 1498 517 364).
A self-narrated trip through the bumpy life of its maker (aka Harold
Luttenbacher), the record is also notable as the third Russell album
to appear on ECM, as part of a seemingly impossible big-label deal
that befell Russell and his band of loons, care of writer, producer,
and new-found NRG-advocate, Steve Lake. From the perspective of a
long-time Hal fan, like me, it truly was a surreal moment; if the
Clintons bought a Vito Acconci sculpture for the White House lawn,
it would elicit about the same level of shock. A little over a month
before he would move on to the ultimate jazz oasis, Russell finished
The Hal Russell Story with these words, recalling the neglect he had
long received: "Land ho! Land ho! Pinch me mama. This old ship's
a-coming in..."

Anyone who was present at Russell's bittersweet memorial concert at
Southend Musicworks might have known that the NRG Ensemble would
persevere past the demise of its original instigator. NRG's member-
ship changed over the years, but the final lineup had been stable
since the mid-'80s: Mars Williams on saxophones; Steve Hunt on drums
and percussion; Kent Kessler on bass; Brian Sandstrom on bass,
electric guitar, and trumpet. On a few occasions, when Williams was
unable to make a gig, ex-Bostonian Ken Vandermark sat in with the
group. Vandermark, who is one of the most active musicians in
Chicago's deceptively small scene, works with the Waste Kings, his
own free improvising trio, Caffeine, and the Vandermark Quartet.
At the Russell memorial, Vandermark took Russell's chair in a set
of intense NRG tunes that, in their very strength, announced the
band's plans to continue as a unit.

A year and a half later, we have the fruits of NRG's second coming.
Taking its name and three (out of 11) compositions from Russell,
Calling All Mothers (Quinnah Q05) returns the ensemble to a
smaller Chicago label. Beautifully packaged and better recorded than
any previous NRG recording, the new CD carries on certain aspects of
Russell's musical legacy, but at the same time it evidences possible
new directions and an inspiring sense of purpose and dedication. The
choppiness and urgency of Russell-era NRG is there, as is the quirky
sense of humor - though no one seems to be trying to ape Hal's
eminently un-ape-able imagination. Moreover, with Vandermark in the
group the arrangements are tighter, the soloing more varied and
somewhat more interesting; Russell was - and he would admit
this - no great shakes as a tenor stylist, though his limited
technical facility on the instrument was immediately recognizable
as his own and never got in the way of the free fun.

Where Russell prompted Williams to outrageous energy excesses,
Vandermark and Williams work together, feeding each other ideas
and building solos in an organic way (check out the title cut, for
example). Vandermark contributes three original tunes. "Punch and
Judy" has NRG written all over it - manic vamps, open solo spaces,
a rock-'em-sock-'em robots' head, and a delicate finish; "American
Tan" sets long phrases over a bubbling rhythm section before Mars
and Ken swap solid solos. Williams composed a couple of Russell
-era NRG standards; here, he kicks in a sensitive, slower number
"Kiteless String," a burly blower called "Chasin' My Tail," and the
weirdest, neatest cut on the disc, "Symposium/Mr. Happy," which has
a nasty, rock/dub groove that sounds like Public Image Ltd. meeting
Fred Wesley's Horny Horns. Hunt features the vibraphone on his
piece "Memory Seek," a tune that runs through a series of cyclical
changes, pouring out into a deep, open section and a beautiful,
anthemic ballad reminiscent of Albert Ayler's funereal slow works.

The newest thing on the disc is probably "You Never Buy Me Anything,"
a genuine free imrovisation (no score in sight) with double didgeridoos
humming like a giant's sigh beneath sprawling bass, clarinet, and guitar
solos. Looking backward, "You're My Dream" most strongly evokes Hal, its
muted trumpet recalling a cheesier chapter in jazz chronology that Russell
lovingly looked to for perverse inspiration. With this wonderful record,
the Hal Russell story dies and is born anew in another NRG-etic incarnation.
Long live perverse inspiration!

from Feminist Baseball, issue #13, summer/fall 1994
written by Jeff Smith

Honking, squanking post-Ornette Coleman/Eric Dolphy new thing
super structured jazz that verges on Zorn/Naked City noise at
times but mostly rides hard bop, moving closer to 60s free
jazz, sometimes going into totally free playing. The NRG
Ensemble is a Chicago 5 piece with drums, double-bass, guitar,
clarinets, all types of saxophone, trumpet, didgeridoo, etc.
Hal Russell, who founded the band (and wrote 3 songs here)
died in 1992. This is their first recording without him,
eighth overall. The recording here is pristine - it's like
being at a concert - and the playing is sharp, confident, and
very powerful.

from Animal Review, issue #6, June 1994
written by Ben Burck

NRG Ensemble is back with Flying Luttenbacher Ken Vandermark
filling the sax slot vacated by the late, great Hal Russell.
Strange, tight compositions; three pieces by Russell, most of
the others by either Vandermark or Williams. Great playing too.
Imagine Albert Ayler playing the music of Raymond Scott.