A review of Goodbye Svengali:On the strength of this CD, it’s a mystery why Ray Russell has been so severely under-recorded throughout his career. As part of an exploratory group of British musicians in the late 1960’s, Russell released several acclaimed experimental jazz fusion albums, but he has made only a handful of recordings under his name since 1973, although he has always been in huge demand (for obvious reasons) as a session player. Unlike countryman and fellow guitarist John McLaughlin, who connected with Miles Davis, founded the Mahavishnu Orchestra and made a name for himself as a jazz fusion pioneer, Russell has remained in the shadows, doing his session work, bringing a few of his projects to small labels, and playing with a number of high quality, but little-known British jazz-rock, fusion and experimental bands.However, Russell did make one influential contact in the 1980’s, playing with legendary bandleader Gil Evans’ British band when Evans toured the U.K. and Europe, and developing a personal friendship with Evans over the years. This recording was put together as homage to Evans (the word Svengali is a nickname given to Evans by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, the name of a 1972 Evans recording – and an anagram for the name Gil Evans). Gil Evans’ son Miles Evans (named, of course, after Miles Davis) even plays some blistering trumpet on the title track, sounding almost like he’s channeling Davis. Overall, the eleven pieces on this CD do not attempt to break new group stylistically; they are firmly in the jazz funk/fusion tradition, with obvious nods to the great electric Miles Davis bands. Several gorgeous ballads are perhaps more reminiscent of Pat Metheny’s oeuvre, while a solo drone piece, Wailing Wall, has a strong element of Frippertronics (the ambient loop system and style developed by experimental guitarist Robert Fripp).One very touching, personal piece, Charles Mingus’s Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, has Russell improvising over a solo Fender Rhodes piano track recorded by Evans in 1983, which Russell found recently while digging through his tape archives. Relating Russell to “name” guitarists such as Metheny, Fripp, and the highly influential McLaughlin, in no way serves to reduce Russell’s stature as a musician. Rumor has it that Russell also can (or could) shred with the weirdest and wildest, but this CD was not conceived as a post-Hendrix display of monster chops. Nonetheless, Russell’s technical and creative facility is nothing short of jaw-dropping throughout. He twists notes up, down and sideways, executes flawless, intricate runs, and displays an excruciatingly pure electric guitar tone that pierces the heart.
He is also supported on this recording by very capable, long-time musician friends and associates, including drummers Simon Phillips and Gary Husband and bassist Mo Foster, who serve to make the session much more than a guitar showcase. Truly an excellent recording. But please, somebody get Russell in the studio again (and again) so that he can share more of his singular talents with the world.