A Tribute to John Russell (1954-2021) by Evan Parker

“John had a place at the heart of the world scene for improvised music,” writes Evan Parker in this tribute to guitarist and founder of MOPOMOSO John Russell (1954-2021), who passed away on 19 January 2021. 

John Russell, Vortex 2010. Photo by Andy Newcombe / Creative Commons

From Ruckinge to Ruckinge. We knew this sad day was coming but somehow John Russell’s great determination to stay alive in the face of a horrifying complex of health problems became taken for granted, and we all started to think he would live forever. Today, January 19, 2021 I got the sad news of his death from Stephen Vitkovich of Byrd Out Records and a neighbour of John’s in Walthamstow. He died in the care of his wife Joanna and a loving circle of friends who have been looking after him during his gradual decline. The current situation has made his regular stays in hospital for surgery and chemotherapy especially demanding, but even so John has spent this last year working ceaselessly on ways to ensure that his great contribution to the scene, MOPOMOSO, survives him. “MOdern POst MOdern, SO?” as John used to take great pleasure in explaining. Thinking all the way back to his arrival at the Little Theatre Club fresh up from Ruckinge on the borders of Romney Marsh, he was an enthusiastic teenager, signing up for guitar lessons with Derek Bailey. He very soon became a key figure in the second wave of younger players who were one way and another drawn to that milieu. A quick scan through the flyers for Musicians Co-operative gigs in the early ’70s shows John playing “August 27th (year?)”, at the Unity Theatre in a Musicians Cooperative concert with Steve Beresford, Dave Solomon and Herman Hauge. October 4th (the year before?) for Janice Christiansen’s Albion Music (with a healthy mix of generations) concert titled Late Night Improvisation 10.30pm – 2.30am. An early appearance at the then new venue the LMC had at Gloucester Avenue on Saturday 19 December (should be easy to find which year) with what looks like four solos and a quartet with Evan Parker, Barry Guy and Richard Coldman. There will have been hundreds of concerts in the back rooms of pubs which would take more diligent research to find documentation. I think the first solo record John made was an LP for Incus shared one side each with fellow guitarist Richard Coldman. John’s side was called “Home Cooking” with a the cover that featured a picture of John with his much loved Grandma in the doorway of a Kentish cottage. Janice Christiansen was the first promoter to take to this so called “second generation”. Derek Bailey is said to have been inspired by the younger players free-floating permutations which were an established norm their community in his work with Company. Incus records issued what I think must be John’s first official recording, “Teatime” made in 1974 and 75 at the Unity Theatre with Steve Beresford, Garry Todd, Nigel Coombes and Dave Solomon. The Emanem re-issue included a duo with drummer Dave Solomon which may be the earliest recorded example of John’s playing from 1973. In 1979 with percussionist and fellow Kentish Man Roger Turner and Actual Music promoter and founder of The Wire magazine Anthony Wood, John set up CAW records. Roger became a regular playing partner with John, and their friendship is well documented on many subsequent recordings. Martin and Madelaine Davidson of Emanem Records have been very supportive of John’s work since the early days. There is an interesting piece on his website called “first draft for a piece about the early days” (LINK BELOW) As his work started to be noticed further afield John started to travel more: concerts with trombonist Gunther Christman and poet Elke Schipper including a residency in Hannover where he met and played with many aspiring improvisers in workshops. Saxophonist Stefan Keune became a dear friend and playing partner. John enjoyed the workshop situation and his enthusiasm for encouraging younger players continued unbroken into the Mopomoso era. I think a fuller more precisely referenced account would include more dates and more names but John’s life is a rich and complex story – certainly more than I can do justice to here. His recordings with Radu Malfatti, John Butcher, Phil Durrant, Chris Burn, Maarten Altena, Paul Lovens, Hugh Davies, Luc Houtkamp, Sylvia Hallet, Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg, Terry Day, Michel Doneda, Mats Gustafsson, Maggie Nicols, Mia Zabelka, Stale Liavik Solberg, Henry Lowther, Satoko Fukuda, Phil Minton, Eddie Prevost, Ian Brighton, Henry Kaiser, Gianni Mimmo, Mario Schiano, Ute Volker and Mathieu Werchowski in addition to all the names already mentioned show that John had a place at the heart of the world scene for improvised music. He had a place in their hearts too. Important chapters of a biography would feature the Red Rose Club in Finsbury Park, walking distance from where John lived during that whole era, the pre-Vortex versions of Mopomoso. From the ’90s on, John’s activities expanded to include regular visits to Japan organised by Hisashi Terauchi and usually involving drummer Sabu Toyazumi. John loved Japanese culture and I am sure that the regular ritual of an early evening gig followed by a meal with the promoter and team were a source of great delight to him, combining as it did talk of music, convivial company, great food and plenty of sake. Once he established a connection at the Vortex he had a new home. MOPOMOSO and his regular Fetes Quaqua were given an injection of new technology by film maker Helen Petts who, in her words, in 2008 “Dragged him into the 21st century” setting up a website and filming every concert for the first five years. John became very keen on digital technology thereafter and joined everything. He had a huge number of Facebook friends. In 2010 John recorded a solo record for my label psi, which he called “Hyste”a Kentish dialect word for “a call, a message”. Recorded in Whitstable with a photo of the timber frame of the oldest building in Faversham it is a great hommage to his beloved home county. A new chapter started with Irish pianist Paul G. Smyth and their collaboration in founding the Weekertoft label. The first and magnificently ambitious release was a four CD boxed set released in 2016 using recordings from the Mopomoso Tour that John organised with Sound and Music in 2013. Finally John had support in the UK at a level that allowed him to tour with a group of eight other musicians: bassist John Edwards, pianist Pat Thomas, singer Kay Grant, violinist Alison Blunt, viola player Benedict Taylor, bassist David Leahy, clarinetist Alex Ward and myself on saxophone. He loved being the instigator of such a lavish tour and his special request was that Matt Saunders our driver and sound man would play the theme from the old TV show “The A-Team” as loud as possible before starting the motor each morning. Meanwhile Weekertoft (Ear Dwelling in Kentish dialect) has become an important label for many of the players who have arrived in John’s long and intense life in improvised music (see for the catalogue). During his last visit to Japan in 2019 John gave a series of lectures, workshops and concerts as a Guest Professor at Musashino Art University at the invitation of Christophe Charles who in turn had been invited by John to play at Mopomoso eleven years earlier. The beautiful documentation of the residency show many photographs of John in his element, smiling broadly.

John Russell in Mopomoso TV Episode 3

More recently in this covid era of shut down for live performance, working with Paul Jolly he founded a channel called Mopomoso TV. While his health allowed he wore a different suit for each episode and acted as compere. One of his  last suits was white (screengrab above from Episode 3 – LINK) which of course symbolises Death in Chinese culture. Joanna told me yesterday (by now it is 14.16 on January 20) that John will be buried in Ruckinge Church Yard at the end of a life that began there. An amazing story from an astonishingly determined man. Evan Parker, 20 January 2021 LINKS: John Russell’s website Oliver Weindling’s tribute on the Vortex website Mopomoso’s YouTube Channel

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