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John Russell (1954-2021)

There are already several tributes to John Russell, who died on Wednesday (20th January) out there, from critics and fellow musicians, so this my own small acknowledgement of the passing of this great English free improviser. It coincides with the death of another important figure, the trombonist Malcom Griffiths, so, all in all, not a great week for UK jazz/improvisation. Griffiths was 79 years old, but Russell was only just 66. (He was only 6 months older than this author, so all the bollocks about ‘time’s winged chariot’ seems less and less to be bollocks.)

I’ve always felt some affinity with Russell (a great jazz name, what with George and Pee Wee!), as his early musical influences approximated mine in the early 70s, with the likes of King Crimson and other early 'prog’ bands. He was also eventually bitten by the 'Bailey bug’, and took lessons off the Grand Old Improviser for a year or so - Derek Bailey apparently refused to 'teach’ him free improvisation, and focused mainly on technique. When Russell landed up in London, alongside several of the 'Second Generation’ improvisers, he was soon, along with fellow Teatime’rs (arguably the first album featuring this new group of players), asked, along with Steve Beresford and Dave Soloman, to join the Musicians’ Cooperative (MC). He thus was one of the few who formed an enjambement between the 'generations’. (He was, in a short time, an important participant in the London Musicians’ Collective, the putative sucessor to the MC, as was Beresford). These newcomers marked the arrival of improvisers who came from other backgrounds than the jazz-influenced 'First Generation’ (who were, in fact, not that much older than them).

I think that I first came across the man in a Mopomoso (ultimately his greatest contribution to the scene?) all-day pre-Christmas bash, across a weekend, at Crouch End’s King’s Head, in its basement that also gave space to a residency featuring Veryon Weston’s trio of the time (actually Ollie Blanchflower’s?) with various esteemed guests from the free improv world. A rather forgotten series (called Changes?), across a couple of years, I particularly appreciated it because it was only a few streets away from where we lived and still live. Sadly, Crouch End was not to prove to be as receptive to the music as Dalston would later.

Most of my live Russell experiences were from the long-lasting Evan Parker Trio with John Edwards on bass, a mostly unrecorded combination of almost inevitable high quality. I must have seen this group around 20 times. However, one of the last times must have been at Cafe Oto, when Russell performed with a resurrected String Thing, with Ian Brighton, Phil Wachsmann, Marco Mattos and Trevor Taylor (parts of which were realeased on FMR Records as the recommended Reunion). Parker was also in attendance, our own Zelig of free improvisation. When I saw JR a couple of years later, he was clearly game, but unwell.

I was hoping to interview Russell as part of my Musicians’ Cooperative project, but it was not meant to be. His contribution to the UK improvisation world is incalculable, but he leaves his Mopomoso project, at 30 years of age (started in 1991) now the oldest improv organisation in the UK, and regularly featured at The Vortex Jazz Club since 2008.

Thank you, John.

The Musicians’ Cooperative (1970-1975): my next project

I took advantage of the first lockdown to complete my long-planned book on the London Musicians’ Collective (LMC), which was reviewed in this month’s Wire magazine. Ironically, one door opens and another shuts: the latest lockdown has meant that the Wire Bookshop is currently closed for business, which rules out one principal source for the book’s availability. It should soon be available through my updated website, improvmusic.co.uk.

And so, as the days stretch out unforgivingly, and the only other person that I currently see is my lovely wife, I’m going to crack on with the next keep-sane project, which will be the story of the LMC’s immediate predecessor, the Musicians’ Cooperative (MC), which was essentially a ‘first generation’ self-help organisation, designed by the early London-based free improvisers to promote the music through regular gigs. It was rather brutally terminated when the Unity Theatre in Mornington Crescent, latterly its main venue, burned down in November 1975. The music kept going through the activities of the LMC, a rather different, mainly ‘second generation’ entity. The MC was a ‘purer’ beast, almost totally committed to then-radical ‘total improvisation’ (Barry Guy’s ‘Ode’ was one obvious exception), to which improvisers had to invited in to join; the LMC welcomed other genres and anyone was free to join.

The MC organised an ‘International Festival of Improvised Music’ (basically first generation English players with a smattering of German and Dutch confreres), at Ronnie Scott’s Club and the Bloomsbury Theatre in January 1974. I was a student in London at the time and attended a couple of evenings, and they left a great impression on me, the first time that I saw such legends as Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and Peter Brotzmann. The festival was organised by the MC, and was a landmark event. I’ve got in touch with most of the surviving members (Bailey, John Stevens and Paul Rutherford have long passed), but memories can be rather vague (it is, after all, fifty years ago), and, as is often the case with early DIY bodies, written records were seldom kept. (There is much written documentation about the LMC, however, stored in the London College of Communication.) It’s therefore likely to be a rather stitched-together memorial, from a variety of secondary, as well as primary, sources, but I do think that these early attempts to ground improvised music in regular live events needs to be recognised, as they are liable to vanish as the time gets further and further away. From this time of information-overkill, I will be looking back at a ‘scene’ of information-scarcity.

Tyshawn Sorey and the Top 101 List: Part Two

Like Barry Guy’s larger groups (the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, the Barry Guy New Orchestra and The Blue Shroud), Tyshawn Sorey’s (I must stop confusing him with Tyson Fury!!) musicians on Pillars are broken down into smaller configurations across the expanse of the recordings (a methodology that can perhaps be methodologically  backdated to Derek Bailey’s Company, at least in the realm of free music?)  Listeners are encouraged to listen in parts: “small subgroups over relatively short distinguished sections”. The symphonic pretentions are obvious, everything held together under the overarching concept (which makes it somehow not ‘free’?). The London Jazz Composers 1993 ‘small-within-the great’ work Portraits is just one example of this modus.

Derek Bailey’s name will always come up when one is debating categorisation. He is in good ‘company’, as such greats as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy, to name only a few, regularly questioned whether ‘jazz’, with its dubious and rather unsavoury backstory in the brothels and stews of early 20th century New Orleans, was an appropriate name for black America’s moist/most creative music of that time period: but no-one has really come up with an alternative name that doesn’t sound lame. Listening to the FJC’s list of the 101 best jazz albums has merely reinforced my doubts as to what one should really call this music, without potentially misleading the listener. Most of us have an idea of what ‘jazz’ sounds like - perhaps a choice of Hard Bop or Swing? Louis Armstrong as the ultimate avatar? I’m aware that there are a lot of question marks in this blog, but John Corbett’s apercu should ultimately stand the test. Much of the 101 list features individuals/bands that seem to originate from other genres - hiphop, electronica, contemporary classical, drone, noise, minimalist, which is fine, as jazz has always been a welcoming home. But today’s maestros are usually from university-level training, and will inevitably have soaked up other speciality genres, jazz being but only one. And it shows.

There have been many attempts to pin down exactly what ‘proper jazz’ is, especially from the 1980′s ‘jazz revival’ onwards, i.e. it being the work of the pre-1970 period, with the Miles Davis Quartet and the John Coltrane Quartet being institutionalised as the music’s non plus ultra. Definitely NOT the work of post-’electric Miles’ and his cursed spawn! The 101 list clearly proves that the definitional battle  is far from complete. There is some great music out there, but is it jazz? 100 years on, the word is still controversial, but resolute.

Tyshawn Sorey: Top of the Tree? Part One

I’ve been exploring the ‘101 Best Jazz Albums of the 2010s’ list, collated by the guys at the Free Jazz Collective (FJC) website. The word ‘Album’ seems a tad anachronistic, given the multiplicity of of content providers across the said decade, but hey, many of us still love a list! Consisting of names old and (for me at least) new, the whole exercise got me thinking about that other much contested word, ‘Jazz’ itself. I’ve had  a few occasions to quote the comment of the Chicago-based music critic John Corbett, “resistance to naming is a sign of volatility” (from his 1994 classic Extended Play), which seems as good a description as any to query the  name given to much of the music delineated by this list. (The music can be downloaded from the FJC site while reading about the album concerned, which is most appreciated by this particular reader.)

Top of the list is Tyshawn Sorey’s mammoth Pillars, which takes up three (each one considerably lengthy) compact discs, and which retails at around 50 quid. Now, I don’t want to come across here as a penny-pincher, but…The download factor comes into play at this point, and, if I come to like these recordings enough, I might shell out, but this is some way off at present.  200-odd minutes of this stuff is a LOT of material, especially as projects of this scale almost always are somewhat of a curate’s egg. What on earth happened to the concise, 35-odd minute ‘statement’, such as Brilliant Corners or A Love Supreme? Or is this just a case of false equivalences? So many modern day recordings seem a tad grandiose - for example, did Kamasi Washington start the ‘hypertrophy phase’ off with The Epic in 2015, or does it go back even further, with Goldie’s itself epical drum and bass ‘symphony’Timeless, from 20 years earlier, in 1995 ?(These two can definitely be compared, what with their massed strings and choirs, and undoubted sense of self-importance and ‘significance’.) The Epic was unquestionably ‘jazz’  - it ‘swung’, for example (the ‘Braxton test’?), but could the same be said about Pillars? And have we finally moved beyond this sort of determinism? After all, one definition of jazz (Wiki) is music containing “rhythm patterns, harmonic practices related to functional harmony, and the practice of improvisation”. So far, so vague.

The first part of Pillars reminds me a bit of the Bill Dixon/Barry Guy collaboration from the early 90s, Vade Mecum, with the addition of considerable electronics. Jazz, but not as we know it? For me, this is ‘improvised music’, with most of the ‘jazz’ rinsed out. It might point those sufficiently interested ‘towards jazz’, but the latter is not the main ingredient. Of course, this is an argument as old as the hills - syncretic constructs have been put forward in jazz music since its earliest days: by Ellington, Scott Joplin (Treemonisha), James P. Johnson (American Suite-Lament), Charles Mingus (Epitaph), Barry Guy, Anthony Braxton, various Jazz Composers Orchestras, right up to the likes of William Parker (Mayor of Punkville), never mind his namesakes, Charlie and Evan.


TBC

“Wholly Communion”  Part Two

I’ve watched Wholly Communion twice now in order to confirm the sheer car crash awfulness of much of its fascinating content. One of the most awful scenes is that of Harry Fainlight (1935-1982) being crucified on stage by a hostile audience, whilst the mescalin-raddled Dutch writer, Simon Vinkenoog (another ‘who, exactly?) chants ‘love, love’ in very unlovely way, as Fainlight winces and minces on and off the stage. “Oh happy lightbulb” opines Harry, whose biography makes for sad reading.  Hipsters then had absolutely NO idea how to handle those with obvious mental health problems (it was the same in the 70s in my particular crowd). Jokers like Ginsberg came across all “you have to be mad to work here”, but were ultimately impotent in the face of the real thing. Poor old Harry had to be escorted off the stage, before returning for a final, slightly more positively received turn.

Our own Adrian Mitchell makes a good show with an anti-Vietnam poem (whilst obviously being in no risk of being immediately drafted), before making a bit of an ass of himself with his one-line “love is like a cigarette…the bigger the drag, the more you get”. (It’s the way they told ‘em?) Ernst Jandl, on the other hand, goes full Kurt Schwitters, and goes down a storm, presumably because Dada poetry offers an genuinely joyful alternative to all the po-faced main menu offered up.

The coup de grace though if the clearly-pissed Allen Ginsberg, all puffed-up importance and parading paranoid, persecutory nonsense in ‘ob-verse’, a  counterculture Zelig, who managed to be around in so many situations (back cover of Bringing It All Back Home, the famed Beatles/Dylan encounter, being just two). The mot juste of “Shitting the meat out of my ears on my cancer death bed..” being evacuated in front of a woman doing ‘creative dancing’ in the camera’s foreground is just one lowlight in this shit show of bloated self-importance. It’s amazing that this was ever thought ‘important’, but Beat was surely ever about the lifestyle rather than the actual art? (Burroughs is a guarded exception.)

At the end, one lone voice is heard to utter, like a bereft child, “I’ve lost my poetry book!” They weren’t the only one. Watch it and weep. It’s a mesmerising historical document, released on DVD as Peter Whitehead and the Sixties.

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.