ARTHUR RUSSELL The World Of Arthur Russell (Soul Jazz)
So expansive is the world of Arthur Russell that this triple album compilation feels like a rushed, sketchy attempt to define it. Born in Iowa in 1952, Russell took to the cello whilst at school, joined a San Francisco Buddhist commune in the early 1970s before gravitating, inevitably, to New York, where he studied at the Manhattan School of Music. After very nearly joining Talking Heads, he instead pursued his own vision of avant garde dance music, often disguising his art under pseudonyms and collaborations: in addition to work under his own name, "The World Of Arthur Russell" includes music credited to Dinosaur L, Lola, Loose Joints and Indian Ocean.
His more dancefloor-oriented tunes are a bizarre, sparse kind of death disco, long, freewheeling jams (un)filled with rolling electric piano solos, hectoring, jabbing, fragmentary voices, dubby trumpets and bongo fury. Not quite songs such as "Go Bang" and "Schoolbell/Treehouse" travel the vast, uncharted spaceways between Weather Report and early 80s Prince, mapping out challenging, hostile territory.
But when he drags himself away from the floor and lets his experimental tendencies run riot the results are rather more ingratiating. "Keeping Up", for example, its pulsing, distorted cello overlaid with liquid harmonies, demonstrates why Philip Glass was moved to remark that Russell "could sit down with a cello and sing with it in a way that no one on this Earth has ever done before, or will do so again". The 13-minute bonsai carnival "In The Light Of The Miracle" could have inspired both Massive Attack (the pattering percussion being a dead ringer for that employed on their mighty "Unfinished Sympathy") and Derrick May (being strongly reminiscent of his later "Strings Of The Strings Of Life"). And "A Little Lost" demonstrates that he could even do the singer-songwriter thing when he chose, being a kind of country-pop love song, albeit scripted for scraping cello and jangling acoustic guitar. It might sound like an awkward, unsettling combination but Russell made it gloriously harmonious yet refreshingly out of kilter at the same time.
Apparently the result of a sustained night of studio experimentation that culminated in random fragments of tape being thrown in the air and spliced back together where they fell, "Pop Your Funk" is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a mess, but a mess with a beat nevertheless. The skittering drum programs and layered echo of "Let's Go Swimming" seem to be broadcasting from some disco hall of mirrors, the distorted reflection of something far more conventional.
Russell never lived to enjoy the current resurgence of interest in his work, dying in 1992. Apparently only scratching the surface of his output, "The World Of Arthur Russell" is appropriately a fascinating and frustrating document, a celebration of an artist whose perfectionism and experimentation were ill-served by an industry hellbent on compromise.