Frank Russell – Circle Without End

Follow-up to his first critically-acclaimed CD proves this hot Chicago bassist hasn’t run out of ideas!

CD review
By Jon Liebman
September 18, 2011

Having enjoyed a long tenure with jazz guitarist Henry Johnson, bassist Frank Russell is gaining momentum as a solo artist in his own right.  After achieving critical acclaim with his first CD, Covering All Basses, Russell’s brand new release, Circle Without End, underscores the fact that he hasn’t run out of ideas, nor has he lost any of his spark.  While the writing on Circle is good, the real joy lies in the grooving and blowing, both of which are plentiful.  And there just happens to be a killer bass solo on practically every track!

The album opens with “Code MD-2,” a tribute to Miles Davis, written and arranged by Miles alum Robert Irving III, who plays keyboards on the track.  This tune also features trumpet legend Wallace Roney, performing as authentic a tribute to Miles as one could imagine.  Davis is lauded once again with “Would if I Could,” penned by Miles’ mid-80s bassist and Frank’s longtime friend, Darryl Jones, who adroitly handles the slapping duties. Vijay Tellis-Nyak’s synth captures the electronic essence of that chapter in Miles’ career, while Roney’s homage to the man is, once again, spot-on.

Much of Circle Without End is comprised of heartfelt, personal tributes to the special people in Frank’s life: the soulful R&B tune, “Her Name is Roz,” for Frank’s wife; the beautiful “Desi in Sedona,” enhanced by Buddy Fambro’s acoustic guitar, for Frank’s granddaughter; the easy-going, Southern-tinged “Orchards Groove,” for Frank’s late uncle; “Shirley’s Prayer,” for Frank’s cousin, featuring Peter Rothan on flute; and “I Made A Promise,” for Frank’s dad.

Russell’s arranging prowess and versatility on the bass are palpable on Circle.  On “I Made A Promise,” Frank supplies all the instrumentation except the drumming, which is handled by Kahari Parker.  “Promise” also includes Frank’s vocal arrangement, with Frank himself as part of the vocal ensemble.

Frank again makes up most of the band on “Ladysmith,” laying down all the bass tracks, augmented only by drums and percussion (and a little more Wallace Roney trumpeting, toward the end).  The tune is in honor of the legendary South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, with whom Frank performed and toured for six years.  The tune reprises Frank’s tribute, “Ladysmith Parade,” on Covering All Basses.

A definite highlight for bass players (especially Chicago bass players!) is “Quick Pix,” a feel-good mega-funky groove, with Frank and fellow Chi-Town bottom dwellers Darryl Jones and Richard Patterson. Inspired by Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten’s SMV, Frank and the guys put their own spin on the bass trio concept.  And boy, does it groove!

“Noble Street Five” commemorates the five members of Frank’s family who lived on Noble Street in Gary, Indiana, while Frank was growing up.  The energetic tune, in 5/4 meter, shows off Frank’s Jaco-esque grooving ability and, later, his flashy slapping chops.

“Put Up Your Dukes” is a duet with Frank on fretless bass and Mike Logan on synth.  Though not quite what I was expecting, given the title, it’s a beautiful interlude.

Frank’s friend, and sometimes boss, Henry Johnson is featured on “Soul Carnival,” a funky, “smooth jazz” tune, which Johnson composed for the album, and Stevie Wonder’s “Tuesday Heartbreak,” over Frank’s James Jamerson-like Motown groove.  Saxophonist Peter Rothan is featured on both tunes, rounding out the arrangements in fine form.

The title tune, according to Frank, describes his family, as well as his musical journey.  Beautifully sung by Frank’s childhood friend Jeff Morrow, “Circle Without End” captures the deep, spiritual meaning Frank obviously possesses, particularly with the lyrics, “As I look to the sky.”

Throughout the disk, Frank demonstrates a wide variety of bass playing, from funky slapping, R&B grooving, lyrical fretless and tasteful five-string.  In fact, he could have just as appropriately titled this release Covering All Basses, had he not already used it for his first CD.

Frank Russell is a great player and a great groover.  Also noteworthy is his “bass discipline,” whereby he doesn’t feel the need to remind the listener he’s playing a five-string every other bar!  While Circle contains oodles of incredible bass playing, Frank, as before, has surrounded himself with an A-list band, with whom he shares the spotlight most unselfishly.

With two solid solo releases under his belt, one has to wonder where Frank Russell will go from here.  In Circle Without End, this dutiful sideman is solidifying his standing as an established solo artist.

Circle Without End is available here.

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