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.