On Tuesday 19th January 2021, one month after his 66th birthday, guitarist John Russell died peacefully at home after a long battle against cancer. A flurry of obituaries furnished details of Russell's life and fifty-year career as an improvising musician, some also praising his many music-related achievements far beyond his skills as a guitarist. Some obituaries alluded to key recordings and landmarks from Russell's long recording career.
The selection below goes from the start of that recording career to the end, highlighting key recordings of significance. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Russell, they may be good places to begin exploring his work. Anyone who is already familiar with his music will doubtless feel there are key omissions; it is hoped that some of those are picked up in the text. When all is said and done, all of Russell's recordings are worth listening to many times over... Enjoy.
Garry Todd, Dave Solomon, John Russell, Nigel Coombes, Steve Beresford Teatime
(LP Incus, 1975; CD Emanen, 2010)
Russell's debut album (and that of the other participants here) was recorded in late 1974 and early 1975 as he progressed from his teens into his twenties. The musicians were all part of the so-called 'second generation.' The emphasis was clearly on the collective. Across the album, the five never all play together but are a pool from which are drawn solos, duos, a trio and two quartetsaccording to Russell, a set-up which gave Derek Bailey the idea to form Company. At times, the musicians are unrecognisable compared to their later playing styles, notably Russell whose electric guitar is louder and more aggressive than his later acoustic playing.
John Butcher, Phil Durrant, Paul Lovens, Radu Malfatti, John Russell News from the Shed
(LP Acta, 1989; CD Emanem, 2005)
Russell, violinist Phil Durrant and saxophonist John Butcher began playing together as a trio in 1984 and recorded several albums together, including Conceits (1987), the inaugural release on their Acta label. In 1986, they invited the German duo of drummer Paul Lovens and trombonist Radu Malfatti to tour England with them. The resulting quintet worked well and the group News from the Shed was born, continuing to gig together until 1994. This studio-recorded album from 1989 came to be thought of as one of the finest examples of group free improvisation. Some tracks were so noticeably sparse that it is also regarded as an influential precursor of electro-acoustic improvisation (eai)
John Russell & Roger Turner Birthdays
Russell's recording career was peppered with trio and duo collaborations, most of which were long lasting. One such was his duo with improvising drummer-percussionist Roger Turner which was first recorded in February 1996 at the Red Rose in London, and released later that year as Birthdays
. The pair had first performed as a duo two decades before this recording, and first appeared on record together in a trio with the Japanese trumpeter Kondo Toshinori on Artless Sky
(Caw, 1980). The particular playing styles of Russell and Turner plus their long association meant that they always fitted together, complementing one another well. While Birthdays
is recommended as first choice, The Second Sky
(Emanem, 2001) with Turner is also worth investigating.
John Russell From Next To Last (Improvised Guitar Solos 2001-2)
As with any guitarist, listening to Russell play solo can be a revelation after hearing him play with others. (In addition, as Helen Petts' remarkable film on YouTube-below-illustrates, to see him playing solo doubles the pleasure...) Of this album's five tracks, four were recorded at the home of (Emanem proprietor) Martin Davidson; the fifth was captured live at the Red Rose and was an impromptu performance at Russell's monthly Mopomoso when a booked act cancelled at the last minute. Recorded in 2009, the solo album Hyste
, on Evan Parker's Psi label, is on a par with the 2002 album. Both contain the distilled essence of Russell's music.
John Russell Analekta
In 1991, Russell, initially with assistance from trumpeter-pianist Chris Burn, founded the monthly improvised music club Mopomoso (his shorthand for "MOdern, POst MOdern, SO what?") at the Red Rose in Seven Sisters Road, Islington, moving to the Vortex in Hackney in 2008 when the Red Rose closed. Each month, Mopomoso promotes improvised music in all its forms with acts which could be experienced players or relative newcomers, from anywhere in the world. Even during covid-19 lockdowns, Mopomoso kept going as a monthly broadcast, hosted by Russell until his death.
Although it is credited to Russell, Analekta
also features trumpeter Henry Lowther, saxophonists Garry Todd, Chefa Alonso and Stefan Keune, violinist Philipp Wachsmann, percussionist Javier Carmona, Ivor Callin on double bass, Steve Beresford on electronics, Ashley Wales on piano, and vocalists Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg and Nicole Legos. With Russell, players were in duos or a larger group (called "a Quaqua" by Russell), recorded at Mopomoso between November 2004 and June 2006. Altogether, this gives an accurate picture of the variety and quality of the music that is served up monthly at Mopomoso.
Pascal Marzan & John Russell Translations
Another long-lasting duo, this one with French guitarist Pascal Marzan, a frequent performer at Mopomoso and at the annual three-day festival Fete Quaqua. On Translations
, Russell's steel-strung plectrum playing is heard on the left channel and Marzan's nylon-strung classical guitar on the right, allowing the different contributions of the two to be heard clearly and easily distinguished. Although the two guitars have very different timbres, they blend well as the complementary parts of a coherent totality. The playing styles of Russell and Marzan were very different, yet together they adapted to each other, finding a common style that allowed each to play fluently and freely. In full flow, the music seemed to pour out of them smoothly and effortlessly, making it simultaneously relaxing and exhilarating. It never sounds as if the two are in competition -no duelling guitars here -but are both totally involved in an enjoyable and engaging game. As Russell said, 'I find the duo a continuing delight.' And it shows.
Other Russell duo recordings which are worth seeking out include several with saxophonist Stefan Keune, and No Step
(Hispid, 2014) with Norwegian drummer Ståle Liavik Solberg, both regular guests at Fete Quaqua.
Trio Blurb Trio Blurb
Trio Blurb (the name inadvertently came from Russell when he was asked to write a handout about the threesome and headed it "trio blurb"the name stuck...) combined the guitarist with two regular female collaborators, vocalist Maggie Nicols and Austrian violinist & vocalist Mia Zabelka. The three first came together in 2010 at the Alpenglow II-Styria meets UK festival in London. In June 2011 they played together at The Vortex, the resulting recordings comprising this album. The four tracks here demonstrate the vital understanding and empathy between the three, their individual contributions weaving together into a unified whole. Crucial to the success of the trio's music is that they were distinct personalities who all managed to improvise simultaneously without getting in each other's way or upstaging each other. A follow-up CD W
(Evil Rabbit, 2018) consisted of two extended tracks, recorded live in London, in September 2017 and in March 2018.
John Russell With...
(Emanem, 2015) With...
documents a remarkable evening, at Cafe Oto, December 19th 2014, Russell's sixtieth birthday. At the time, he had recently been off the scene for several months, mainly in hospital under observation, having been diagnosed with three blocked arteries and a third of his heart working; nonetheless, he was determined to play this birthday gig. In March 2015 he had a quadruple bypass operation, after which he needed medication for the rest of his life.
Russell played four sets that evening; just listing the personnel gets the juices flowing: a trio with violinist Satoko Fakuda and trumpeter Henry Lowther, a duo with vocalist Phil Minton, a trio with saxophonist Evan Parker and bassist John Edwards, and a final duo on electric guitars with Thurston Moore. Despite his health issues, Russell was in terrific form throughout. A real trooper...
Evan Parker, John Russell, John Edwards, Pat Thomas, Alison Blunt, Benedict Taylor, David Leahy, Kay Grant, Alex Ward. Mopomoso Tour 2013, Making Rooms
In April 2013, thanks to funding from the Arts Council of England, to mark Mopomoso's twenty-first anniversary, a "troupe of formidable improvisers" toured England for a week, playing gigs in Birmingham, Brighton, Oxford, Bristol, Sheffield, Newcastle and Manchester over eight days, the first (and possibly only) tour of its kind. Everything was recorded and this four-CD box set dedicates one disc to each of four groupings representing the diversity of Mopomoso: Parker, Russell & Edwards (their seventy-one minutes here being far more than the twenty-two on With...
), Pat Thomas on solo piano, the strings trio of violinist Alison Blunt, violist Benedict Taylor & double bassist David Leahy, and the duo of Kay Grant's voice & Alex Ward's clarinet.
Keen-eyed readers may have spotted the high proportion of Russell releases that were on Emanem. Mopomoso Tour 2013, Making Rooms
signalled a change to that as it was the first release on the Weekertoft label, set up by Russell and Irish pianist Paul G. Smyth, and launched in February 2016, after which Russell recordings tended to be on Weekertoft.
Butcher / Lash / Russell / Sanders Discernment
John Russell, Olie Brice, Henry Kaiser, Ray Russell The Dukes of Bedford
(Fractal Music, Balance Point Acoustics, 2021)
In conclusion, two albums which seem likely to have been John Russell's last recordings. Discernment
was recorded live at Café Oto on January 13th 2020 with John Butcher on saxophone, Dominic Lash on bass and Mark Sanders on drums, all of whom Russell was familiar with. The Dukes of Bedford
was recorded at Westpoint Studios in London, on March 11th 2020, just before lockdown began. On it, Russell was joined by Olie Brice on bass and by fellow guitar aces Ray Russell and Henry Kaiser. As the finale of a recording career, both are well up to scratch.