Bill Russo: 'School of Rebellion'


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Bill Russo
Bill Russo is best known to jazz fans as one of Stan Kenton's top arrangers in the early 1950s. But from time to time, Russo led his own orchestras on recording sessions. His first leadership date came in 1947, and from 1947 to 1950 he led a rehearsal band known as Experiment in Jazz. Russo's arrangements typically had a brooding, modern-classical fee, which was inspired by his studies with pianist Lennie Tristano in the mid-1940s. Russo also tended to focus less on swing and more on expressive, Third Stream textures, which some jazz listeners found tedious and dated, especially as big band music entered a second swing phase in the late 1950s with the advent of stereo LPs and television. [Photo of Bill Russo, above, in the early 1950s]

One of Russo's most interesting leadership dates came in March 1960, when he recorded School of Rebellion for Roulette. The orchestra featured 22 musicians, including strings: Burt Collins, Johnny Glasel, Louis Mucci and Don Stratton (tp); Eddie Bert, Bill Elton, Al Robertson, Don Sebesky and Paul Faulise (tb); Tony Bunopastore and Dick Meldonian (as); Frank Socolow and Larry Wilcox (ts); Tony Ferina (bar); Sy Barab and Alan Shulman, Julius Ehrenwerth and G. McCracken (strings); Al Shackman (g); Irv Manning (b,tu); Ed Shaughnessy (d) and Bill Russo (arr,comp,dir).

What's interesting is that the strings weren't used by Russo to revive the sound of Kenton's Innovations Orchestra. Instead, they simply mellowed the brass a bit to an interesting effect. Overall, there's a jaunBill Russoty and brassy Kenton-esque quality to the arrangements, which makes perfect sense given Russo's history. Listen to What Is the Difference and Sonatina. They sound like lost Kenton charts, along the lines of Russo's Halls of Brass or Portrait of a Count.

Russo wrote the album's liner notes, which read like a manifesto:

“Rebellion is an attack on the established order and usually takes one of two forms. The first destroys and negates everything and the other strips away the bad from the old, building anew on what is worthwhile. The first annihilates and denies; the second changes and affirms. Both forms see the evil, but the first doesn't know the good. This orchestra represents a rebellion in the second sense. It is an affirmation of the world and an aspiration toward the good life."

Russo's orchestra began weekly rehearsals in January 1959—more than a year before the recording session. “Our music requires frequent and dramatic changes of volume and many subtle distinctions of articulation and fingering, and the men have picked up the new techniques. When a substitute comes to a rehearsal, he is usually intimidated by the drastically different performing art demanded by the music."

Most important was this paragraph: “The orchestra is a school for listeners. It teaches a new way of jazz. The lyrical and delicate is stressed, formal divisions are important and are clearly indicated, and the improvising soloist and the orchestra player must work within the music rather than against it. These are characters not often found today and the listener must open his ears."

This is an orchestra! Russo died in 2003.

JazzWax tracks: Bill Russo and His Orchestra: School of Rebellion has been doubled with Seven Deadly Sins, another Russo release on Roulette in 1960. You'll find them together here on a Fresh Sound release.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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