Obituary: John Russell

    British guitarist who moved from a tune a day to become a prominent figure in free improvisation with Evan Parker, Chris Burn and others

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    John Russell. Photo by Helen Petts

    The improvising guitarist John Russell died peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of 19 January 2021. Born in Battersea in 1954, John Russell grew up in Ruckinge, near Romney Marsh, Kent, where he lived with his grandparents. At the age of 11 he got a cheap, steel-strung acoustic guitar and a book called A Tune A Day. “From then on, I was never without a guitar”, he later recalled.

    As a teenager his main influences were rock and blues – John Mayall, Frank Zappa, Muddy Waters, King Crimson and others. Then he heard Barry Guy’s London Jazz Composers Orchestra, including the saxophonist Evan Parker, with whom he was to form a long-standing musical relationship.

    He had guitar lessons from Derek Bailey, who as well as being a leading improviser, was also an established session musician, which helped John fill in gaps in his conventional playing. He also studied serialism, atonality and read books on sound and hearing. “It was all part of my wish to ‘play the whole instrument’ and not just particular stylistic parts of it”, he said. Like guitarists Bailey and Sonny Sharrock, he was to push the boundaries of the instrument.

    He started to play with John Stevens and others at the Little Theatre Club in London’s West End, with the London Musicians’ Co-op and at Unity Theatre. From 1974 his work extended into teaching, broadcasts (radio and television), co-founding the magazine Musics and touring in the UK and other countries around the world. His first concert abroad was with fellow guitarist Roger Smith at the Palais de Beaux Arts, Brussels, in 1977. From then he played with many of the world’s leading improvisers and became hugely knowledgeable about all kinds of music, especially folk and world music and different styles of jazz and improvisation. He would just as readily talk about Henry Kaiser as George Van Eps or Eddie Lang.

    In 1981, he founded QUAQUA, a large bank of improvisers put together in different combinations for specific projects and, in 1991, he started MOPOMOSO, with trumpeter and composer Chris Burn, to promote free and improvised music. At first based at the Red Rose Club, Finsbury Park, it moved and became established at the Vortex in Dalston, not only to present the music, but to help and advise those interested in the whole area of improvisation.

    A gentle man, much like his music, which often showed quiet and thoughtful consideration, he was also enthusiastic about what he played, which could just as easily turn to assertive, explosive, percussive expression. Cook and Morton’s Penguin Guide described him as “an acoustic guitar loyalist who manages to combine a classical delicacy with the fire of rock”. For some years he played regularly in a trio with Evan Parker and the bassist John Edwards, which the saxophonist likened to “three tightrope walkers holding a safety net for each other”.

    John enjoyed the physicality of live playing, the immediacy and the closeness, and valued the importance of sharing the music with an audience. Enjoyment for both performer and listener was paramount for John, who considered it good for the heart and mind. “The main thing is that people listen in a direct way”, he said, “and don’t try to mediate through a lens of how they think things should be.” He related this to a story about Picasso, who, when someone told him they didn’t understand his painting, asked “Do you like ham?” On being told yes, the artist replied “And did you understand it?”

    Over the last number of years John suffered from poor health, including a quadruple heart bypass and cancer, but despite this, he remained positive and was working with the trio up to last autumn. He is survived by his wife, Joanna.