Arthur Russell

First Thought Best Thought

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Audika Records can't be beat for their efforts to bring the work of composer, cellist, and songwriter Arthur Russell back into the public eye. Russell, who passed away in 1992 at the age 40 from complications due to AIDS, was well-known in downtown New York City circles, but was also a cipher in many ways. While he played on the Talking Heads' first single, he also played and recorded with Allen Ginsberg, made a slew of 12" disco singles -- which were spun at NYC clubs and universally celebrated for their originality -- and performed regularly at the Kitchen. But he was also rather notorious for recording full-length albums of his compositions and, once having had test pressings made of them, left them to sit, never to release them. Legend has it that Russell left over 1,000 unreleased tapes of his music. Such was his way.

The reissue campaign of his work began with Philip Glass' Point Music label, which assembled a fine compilation of unreleased material, as well as the original take of "Another Thought" in 1994. The 21st century has been even kinder: English label Soul Jazz released most -- though not all -- of the singles on The World of Arthur Russell, and this label, Audika, has released both World of Echo -- a legendary cult album that featured Russell's voice and cello -- and Calling Out of Context, a collection of unreleased tunes. First Thought Best Thought is a double-disc set that brings together, for the first time, both sets of his Instrumentals compositions. Instrumentals, Vol. 2 was issued in 1984 on the Belgian label Les Disques Du Crepescule. Russell got test pressings of Instrumentals, Vol. 1 (which make up the first ten cuts on disc one) but for some inexplicable reason (he had one, to be sure, but no one else, including Steve Knutson of Audika, knows what it was) it was never issued until now.

Hilariously, while it's true that Russell was an avant-garde musician, his works could not have been more accessible. The Instrumentals series, accounting for all but one cut on the first platter ("Reach One" for two Fender Rhodes pianos has never been out before, either) were composed as concert pieces with multimedia in mind. His desire, according to his own notes, was "to stimulate the popular radio sound using drums and combine it with current modes of "avant-garde" musical thought and practice. These earlier concerts tended to focus by repetition on small segments drawn from a very long composed sequence." And while in the first volume he composed using simple harmonic ideas purposely utilizing bass and drums, on the second, he left off the drums. He was interested in movement and sequence, and in his mind's ear, he could hear the sound of popular radio at the time. It's interesting to note that while these pieces are absolutely hummable, they don't suggest to every listener the sound of "popular" radio. They are dreamy, sweet, and full of understated grace and beauty. There is movement, flow, and elegance, but their simplicity sometimes masks the complex rhythmic ideas at the heart of them in the first volume, and the textural and harmonic depth in the second volume, though there are no vocals. In other words, Instrumentals, when taken together, are a humble yet wonderfully exotic soundscape that can be enjoyed over and over again without losing their subtle mystery. Some of the other players on these sessions include David Van Tieghem, Andy Paley, Peter Gordon, Jon Gibson, Ernie Brooks, Peter Zummo, and Jon Scholle, in addition to the composer.

Most of disc two is given over to Tower of Meaning, which was released on Glass' Chatham Square label in 1983. This is a large-scale classical work conducted by the late Julius Eastman. There are hints of Gavin Bryars' more formal early work here, as well as harmonic and lyrical ideas suggested by Aaron Copeland, and even Ferde Grofe. The horns play out deliciously long, intricate lines with strange intonations and harmonics. The pieces -- there are seven in all -- end very abruptly, as if the tape recorder were simply turned off in the middle of an idea (no; that's not what happened). The longest of these is over 21 minutes and is the set's closer. These and all the previous pieces are brought to bear here. Once more, while fully classical, this is very accessible work; it floats and asserts itself, but it never, ever meanders. "Sketch for the Face of Helen," that closes out the second disc, is also previously unissued. It features Russell playing some cheesy keyboard, a tone generator, and has the sound of a tugboat and its crew relentlessly chugging in the background; one can hear the foghorns in its drones. Less formal -- and more playful -- than anything else here, it is a bit spooky at first, but it is so clever and good-natured that this feeling is quickly displaced by one of curiosity, perhaps even wonder. In sum, First Thought Best Thought captures a startlingly creative mind that had the power to execute Russell's concepts. He was restless and relentless in the pursuit of his muse; apparently, it was done, and Russell couldn't even take the time to gauge its worth before moving ever forward to the next thing. Thankfully, one now has the opportunity to listen for himself, and take the necessary duration to fall under its spell. Bravo Audika; may you long continue to delightfully engage listeners with strange, beautiful, and quirky worlds of Arthur Russell's achievement.

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