samedi 26 novembre 2011

John Russell

John Russell, guitar free improvisor 

John Russell, photo by Helen Petts.


Note This text was published as the notes of John Russell's CD HYSTE on Evan Parker's Psi label in 2010.   http://www.emanemdisc.com/psi.html    http://www.mopomoso.com/ 

Guitarist John Russell, born 1954, was raised by his grandparents in Ruckinge, a small village on the edge of Romney Marsh, Kent.  From an early age, he worked on neighbouring farms.  Like so many youngsters of that sixties era, he was fascinated by playing an electric guitar on the progressive side of rock music - the likes of Soft Machine, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart.  In order to have the chance to play with dedicated musicians, he found a job as a farm worker in Kings Langley, a rural place close to London, and visited the Little Theatre Club and the Musicians' Co-operative concerts around 1971.  

At this point John felt that he must investigate his instrument, its technique and roots more deeply.  He took guitar lessons from Derek Bailey, learning mainly traditional techniques.  The late John Stevens invited him to sit in at the LTC.  At that time the motto of the improvisers was “come and play“.  (One of the first phrases I learned myself about English improvisation was “to be involved” in the scene.)  The 17 year old country boy quickly met many of his friends for life.  From the start, he befriended musicians like John Stevens and Evan Parker who both read in his eyes potential and sincerity.

After discovering what improvised music was about and having played with young enthusiasts and some of “the elders”, he moved to London around 1973.  John slept many nights on the floor of friends’ apartments before sharing a flat in Belsize Park with drummer Dave Solomon.  Dave and John began staging their first serious improvised exploration as a duo, but rapidly this moved to an ongoing situation with a larger circle: drummers Roy Ashbury and Roger Turner, saxophonist Garry Todd, violinists Nigel Coombes and Phil Wachsmann, guitarist Roger Smith and pianist Steve Beresford, the People Band’s free spirit Terry Day, and others.  They tried every combination possible at their gigs.  Derek Bailey said at the time that their groups’ shifting and playfulness inspired him to create Company.  As a guitarist, John acknowledges having learned a lot from the drummers: Dave Solomon, Roy Ashbury, Roger Turner, Terry Day and John Stevens.

By the end of 1973, the LTC was coming to an end.  John Russell began to organise at the Artists Meeting Place in Covent Garden.  AMP was an experimental outfit open to painters, poets, moviemakers and dancers, and controlled by the performers there, among them Genesis P-Orridge, David Medalla and Tom Puckey   He ran his first series of gigs.  Roy Ashbury and John played in a trio with the saxophonist Garry Todd and occasionally joined forces with the performance art group Reindeer Werk.  

The AMP gig was far from the last!  Since 1974 John has continued to organise concerts, being perhaps at this point the longest continuously active free improvisation organiser in London.  When the AMP ceased operations, John and Dave worked with the Musicians'Co-operative  at the Unity Theatre:  groups with Russell, Beresford, Todd, Coombes and Solomon played and recorded there between August 74 and April 75.  A rare and unique document, Teatime, issued by Incus the same year (and soon to be reissued on Emanem) documents many aspects of the so-called “second generation” free improvisation of the time.

John sold his solid body electric guitar and bought one acoustic hollow body archtop model from Louis Gallo, a legendary guitarist and jazz pioneer.  (Gallo had introduced Eddie Lang’s music to British audiences, during the thirties.) This guitar was built during the swing era and was made to be heard in a roaring big band context with loud brass and drums, before electric amplification.  Since 1977, Russell has performed exclusively with acoustic guitar, and this changed his relationships with other players, requiring them to adapt their dynamics.  He began to work closely with percussionist Roger Turner who was developing a quieter approach.  Following the disbanding of the Co-op, a gathering of the London improvisers founded the London Musician’s Collective and John was a founder member.  He organised some concerts at the old London Film Makers’ premises before their move to Gloucester Avenue .

Around that time, John developed his solo music, reasoning that that way he could play more often.  In 1978 Evan Parker and Derek Bailey invited him to issue a joint solo guitar album with guitarist Richard Coldman, each taking an LP side . Homecooking. Bedroom Music 1 & 2 was recorded in his grandmother’s home in Ruckinge and  fitted well with the new wave of improvisers who popped from everywhere, and who John met and played with - guitarists Eugene Chadbourne, Henry Kaiser, Davey Williams, violinists La Donna Smith and Jon Rose and trumpet player Toshinori Kondo.



The Incus directors had great intuition producing John’s first solo effort when free improvisation was scarcely documented.  Proof of that is the recording you are now holding in your hand - his heavy custom-made plectrums plucking thick metal strings, the constant use of overtones inside complex strange harmonies and all sorts of string and body manipulations characterising John's approach.  For those who are unaware of the guitar’s harmonics or overtones, it should be said that the control of their emission and pitch is quite tricky.  The player is plucking the string while the finger of the left hand is touching and releasing the string in one stroke without stopping it on the fret board.  This gesture must be very quick and precise.  The points of each interval of tone or semitone of these sounds are located in a quite different ratio than the plucked notes, which are following frets one by one.  To make the pitches of the overtones coincide with the plucked notes inside the harmonies in a sort of logic musical construction is quite a feat.  To carry on a whole concert and to express feelings and beauty is definitely the work of a master.  The subtle variations he combines through his genuine technique seem to be infinite.  His solo music avoids sensational virtuosity to focus rather on a deep emotional content - his sounds evolving from exquisite patterns repeated with subtle alterations and microscopic details to wild rattlings and otherworldly instrumental vibrations known only to himself. 

John’s playing has a clear affinity with Derek Bailey’s acoustic guitar solo concepts.  Both took up acoustic guitar around the same time, 1975, and if Bailey had a bigger musical training and experience at that time, Hyste stands comparison to Bailey ‘s Aïda (Incus reissued on Dexterscigar) or Lace (Emanem).  For my taste, Russell’s solo music recorded herein is as original and stunning as are these great Bailey’s acoustic solos.  Both artists are expressing different minds and sensibilities while adopting similar instrumental logic lying in the specificity of the instrument (“where’s the 12th fret?”).  In comparing Homecooking with Hyste, you will realise how John Russell’s music has evolved, his musical journey being an inimitable lifework nurtured by deep experiences where music making is completely drawn in the harshness of existence.

The Red Rose Seven Sisters Rd picture by Susan Ferrar


When the LMC venue closed down, John ran the Quaqua club at Angel and Crown in Islington, the Club Room with Mike Walters and Richard Sanderson, and The Demolition club with Gina Southgate and Alan Wilkinson - so named because the pub was due for demolition.  Then came the Charteris Community Centre, and finally, the Red Rose on Seven Sisters Road. near Finsbury Park.  His Mopomoso series started there in 1990 with the help of Chris Burn.  Since then, the concerts have taken place on the third Sunday every month.  The Red Rose and its superb acoustics became the main place for improvised music in London and often hosted a dozen concerts a month.  Finally, the venue closed down in 2008 and Mopomoso moved to the new Vortex in Dalston.  (Quaqua is Latin for « withersoever » and became the working title for John’s larger groups.  Mopomoso is an abbreviation for Modernism Post-Modernism So What?)

Mopomoso’s programmes contain the names of famous virtuosos, visiting improvisers from around the globe, unknown young and less young players and many original projects from the vast London scene.  As this scene functions like an entry point into the international map for many rising artists, John’s rare intuition at quickly estimating their potential has been helpful to many.  After so many years at the heart of the free music scene in London, nothing essential has changed for him: many young aspiring musicians have experienced his warm smile and heartfelt welcome just as it was at the old LTC.

One very important phrase that John says quite often is ‘Sometimes I feel like an idiot’.  Evidently, he took years to become the great player he is by now and his modesty worked for the best.  The man is completely open to listen and to understand what he has to share with anybody else sincerely interested in improvised music.  Thirty years ago, he began to work in Gunter Christmann’s Vario ensemble with Paul Lovens, Maarten Altena, Torsten Müller and Maggie Nicols (Vario II & Vario 12 – 21 both on Moers Music).  Gunter Christmann and Paul Lovens were significant figures in the world of European improvised music.  Improvising with such great players helped him to make a jump in his own awareness of how to create new musical templates out of sound exploration with a sense of form.  Some of his orchestral ideas came out of this experience.

Then, Maarten Altena played in his trio with percussionist Terry Day (A Fairly Young Bean Emanem).  This recording was originally meant to be issued on the CAW label that Russell started with Roger Turner and promoter Anthony Wood, the founder of The Wire.  CAW folded soon after the issue of Artless Sky, an album which saw John with one of his main London brothers-in-music, Roger Turner and the then upcoming Toshinori Kondo from Tokyo.   Artless Sky marks perhaps the close of the first cycle in John’s musical evolution. After the discovery, the meetings with many players from London and all over the world and the enthusiasms of the first years, many players vanished.  John has stuck with it through thin and thinner.




In the early eighties, John Russell and violinist Phil Durrant set out with the purpose to play with a third musician and to focus on having a regular fixed group over a long period.  The material came from the instruments and musicians.  After having played with saxophonist Mark Pickworth, they began to rehearse with John Butcher, then a newcomer.  From 1983 on, this trio developed a genuine sound world and had a key role in new developments of free improvisation in the 80’s and 90’s.  Their unique concert with singer Phil Minton subbing for Butcher in Brussels’ Palais des Beaux Arts made a deep impression on me.  (This was also the last of the series in this venue where John had performed his first concert out of Britain, pairing with Roger Smith in December 1976.)

Russell, Durrant and Butcher created a new label, Acta, and issued Conceits, a 1986 recording of their trio which became legendary.  Recordings for Random Acoustics (Concert Moves) and Emanem (The Scenic Route) followed. In 1986 the trio was enlarged to a quintet with Paul Lovens and Radu Malfatti.  Although the group had not intended to make a ”new“ manifesto, and their music was the result of a steady organic development, their recording of 1989 issued by Acta (and reissued by Emanem), News From The Shed, stands as a clear precursor to more recent developments in free improvisation.  Softer gestures, textures more than “colloquiality”, tangential interactivity avoiding too easy ping-pong call and responses.  Undoubtedly, NFTS is one of the most accomplished documents of improvised music, paving the way to further historical developments.

Butcher’s closest collaborator, pianist Chris Burn had fresh ideas creating original scores for improvisers in his Ensemble.  He enrolled Russell, Butcher, Durrant, saxophonist and flautist Jim Denley, cellist Marcio Mattos, electronic keyboardist Matt Hutchinson and hurdy-gurdy performer Stevie Wishart.  Acta also issued Cultural Baggage, the first radical improvised music CD by the Chris Burn Ensemble.  One decade later, the Chris Burn Ensemble also included Axel Dörner, Rhodri Davies, Mark Wastell and Nikos Veliotis, players who along with Malfatti and Durrant defined new territories as being “reductionism“, “lower-case“ or even “new silence “.  Although some musicians with whom he worked are long on theories or even ideological rhetorics, Russell’s own definition of music seems quite simple.  He says: “Music is the organisation of sound and silence.  It employs pitch, rhythm, timbre, dynamics, location and tempo.  It can be manufactured or chosen.  It takes place in a context “.

John has subsequently distanced himself somewhat from this “school”, and is more interested in sharing the creation of music with many friendly players and listening audiences, and in having fun in performing or listening to colleagues or unknown musicians of any genre.  To stay open to what is given and with sincerity and creativity coming from everywhere, without any “political“ agenda, is more a second nature belief than a non idiomatic attitude.  As a recent duo meeting with drummer Tony Marsh illustrated well, the art of inventing music in real time can still surprise anyone who takes it for granted.  The incredible variety of musics and musicians, individual philosophies and moods at work in the field of improvisation can render the building of theories about this musical activity as labyrinths of contradictions.

John Russell’s recent collaborations include the longstanding duo with sopranino sax specialist Stefan Keune (Excerpts and Offerings / Acta & Frequency of Use /  NurNicht Nur), a trio with German accordionist Ute Völker and French violinist Mathieu Werchowski (Three Planets / Emanem), a trio with Evan Parker and John Edwards (House Full of Floors / Tzadik), a duo with cellist Martine Altenburger (Duet / another timbre) and a trio with soprano saxophone explorer Michel Doneda and Roger Turner with whom he  toured in France.  He performs regularly in Japan and Britain with Japanese percussion veteran Sabu Toyozumi, and, whenever he can, with French guitar virtuoso Pascal Marzan, the elusive tenor saxophonist Garry Todd, trumpet legend Henry Lowther, young violinist Satoko Fukuda, singer Ute Wassermann and pipa player Luo Chao Yun.  John and I  recorded the Mercelis Concert as a duo and with Jean Demey (Inaudible) and No Room For Doubt with the Five Rooms quintet reunited by soprano sax great Gianni Mimmo (Amirani), and of course, he continues to perform with his London colleagues like Phil Minton, Lol Coxhill, John Butcher, Phil Wachsmann and Steve Beresford.  John has recently performed and recorded again in Gunter Christmann’s Vario.  At this point, John is planning a Fete Quaqua  involving Gunter in which he will develop new ensemble combinations to create some fresh music, most of them having worked together or being aware of each other’s work.  That kind of work could be described merely as the language of dialogue and the mind of one who understands. These are John Russell’s lifelines and they are expressed most consistently in his solo playing: Hyste.




Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg

Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg is a Belgian historian of improvised music with a special affection for the English scene.  He writes regularly for Improjazz and other European publications.  In the last period, he has increased his profile as a vocalist/performer. 











Note : above ,  the cover my favourite solo improv guitar recording along with Lot 74,  Aïda & Domestic and Public Pieces (Emanem ) of the late Derek Bailey. Below, our very first recording together (Bonnington) are included in the Mercelis  Concert CD on Inaudible, still available.














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Bonne lecture Good read ! don't hesitate to post commentaries and suggestions or interesting news to this......