|John Russell (photo by Peter Gannushkin)
It was German saxophonist Stefan Keune who told me in March 2020 that John Russell was dying of cancer and that he - depending on how well chemotherapy worked - didn’t know how long he would live. Now, the great British guitarist has passed away.
John Russell began to play in and around London from 1971 onwards. He soon connected with the emerging free improvisation scene and became a student of Derek Bailey's. Although he was obviously influenced by the legendary guitarist, Russell found his unique musical personality, he was highly abstract and unpredictable. Or, as my colleague Stuart Broomer once put it: “Where Bailey disrupted the idiomatic gesture, Russell sometimes invokes it; where Bailey practiced discontinuity, Russell can create alternative order“. Sometimes his improvisations seemed to resonate blues or swing patterns, but Russell used them extraordinarily freely, as if they had been carried by a gust of wind and moved on immediately. Another distinctive feature has to do with his instrument, a 1936 Zenith archtop acoustic guitar. It’s an unamplified but loud instrument, which was often used by swing band guitarists, who needed to compete with the brass section. This instrument allowed him to make use of harmonics in a genuinely significant way.
John Russell has played with almost everyone who’s important in the worldwide improv scene and his work can be heard on many albums. There’s a lot of his music which is really to be recommended, starting with his trio album Artless Sky (Caw Records, 1980) featuring Toshinori Kondo on trumpet and his longtime collaborator Roger Turner on drums. The album I became aware of him for the first time was News From The Shed (Acta, 1987) with John Butcher (sax), Phil Durant (violin, electronics), Radu Malfatti (trombone) and Paul Lovens (drums), a real masterpiece of improvised music, maybe the best FMP album which was never released on the seminal German label. London Air Lift (FMP, 1991) with Evan Parker (sax), John Edwards (bass) and Mark Sanders (drums) must be mentioned here, as well as his duos with Stefan Keune. Recently Stuart Broomer has reviewed Nothing Particularly Horrible (FMR, 2019) enthusiastically, another collaboration with Keune, Lovens and bassist Hans Schneider.
However, Russell was more than just a musician. In 1981, he founded Quaqua, a large bank of improvisers put together in different combinations for specific projects and in 1991 he started Mopomoso, which has become the UK’s longest running concert series featuring mainly improvised music.
A true gentleman, a master of subtlety, an excellent musician has left the stage. He will truly be missed.
Watch John Russell play solo: