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John Russell - An Obituary

John Russell – Guitarist

Born December 19, 1954; died January 18, 2021


John Russell, who has died aged 66, was a pioneering guitarist, who dedicated himself to free improvisation, both in his own playing, and in organising platforms for his peers, live and on record. Russell’s own music, played primarily on an acoustic guitar, was a concentrated, spacious and always exploratory experience, both solo and in numerous collaborations over the last half-century. These ranged from veteran saxophonist Evan Parker to former Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, taking in the likes of sax player Lol Coxhill, trumpeter Henry Lowther and vocalist Maggie Nicols en route.


In 1981, Russell founded Quaqua, a large pool of improvising musicians, put together in different combinations and contexts.  A decade later, Russell began Mopomoso, which went on to become the longest running concert series for primarily improvised music.      


The name for Mopomoso came from taking the first two letters of the words ‘modern’, ‘post modern’, and ‘so what’. In this way, Russell was cocking a gentle snook at those who would rarefy and over intellectualise music. For him, improvised music was about a shared emotional experience between players and audience to be treasured. 


During the first Covid-19 induced lockdown in 2020, Russell joined in the regular online Zoom sessions instigated by Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra. One of his last performances was in November of that year, when he played solo as part of the group’s annual GIOFest. Filmed at Russell’s home, this brief but intense piece embodied his entire musical spirit. 


 “Every nuance of his experience was folded into his performances,” GIO’s Raymond MacDonald said of Russell. MacDonald described Russell’s GIOFest performance as “devastating,” and “profound and beautiful on so many levels…. It's one of those pieces that once you start listening to it you need to listen all the way to the end. The narrative is so strong.


“John was a beautiful, warm, generous, friendly and inspirational,” MacDonald said. “All through his illness he retained his impish sense of humour.  Each week he'd dress in flamboyant colours, and was always on hand with a witty observation and anecdote.  He had that rare ability to combine his sense of humour with a profound musical gravitas, always focused and committed to the improvisational moment.    


“It was such a privilege to get to know him better and hear his stories. There was a palpable unstated sense of wonder and privilege within the whole band as we watched John face his illness with inspirational courageousness and openness; always smiling, friendly and endlessly generous with his music, wonderful anecdotes, and spirit.  Always playing beautifully with his instantly recognisable (even on zoom) percussive non-idiomatic style.”


Following Russell’s passing, MacDonald and GIO had what MacDonald calls “a beautiful, but heartbreakingly sad and very intense GIO session” in Russell’s honour, “reminiscing and dedicating all our music to him.”   


John Russell was born in Kent, and brought up by his paternal grandparents after his father turned up at their door and handed the then fifteen-month old Russell over to them. He got his first guitar aged eleven after seeing a classmate at grammar school with one, and badgered his grandparents for one.


Russell formed a group with friends, and would travel in to Folkestone at weekends to watch many of the era’s progressive groups. He was switched on to more out there sounds after reading an interview with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, who named Derek Bailey and Sonny Sharrock as boundary pushers with the instrument. 


Russell left home aged seventeen and worked as a farmhand, travelling to London for gigs, where he met Bailey, Parker and others involved in a thriving improv scene. Bailey taught Russell guitar for a year, and Russell began playing at drummer John Stevens’ Little Theatre Club. Russell released his first solo recordings, Home Cooking (1979) on Bailey and Parker’s Incus label. By now, Russell was playing acoustic guitar exclusively, and recorded his side of what was a split LP with Richard Coldman at the old army hut where he grew up. A photograph of Russell and his grandmother standing outside the house features on the cover of the record.


Over the next forty years, Russell appeared on more than seventy records, promoted at least 300 shows for Mopomoso and played in numerous permutations, from duos with drummer Roger Turner, a trio with sax player John Butcher and pianist Phil Durrant, and other line-ups large and small. He continued to be musically active, despite a quadruple heart bypass operation in 2015 and his more recent cancer diagnosis.


In 2016, Russell marked his fiftieth anniversary of playing the guitar, thirty-five years of Quaqua and twenty-five of Mopomoso with the launch of his new Weekertoft record label, run with Paul G Smyth, and the release of a 4CD box set. 


“For me,” Russell wrote on his website at the time, “it is such a marvellous thing to have found a world of music in which to have an adventure and also to be able to share that adventure, both with an audience and with fellow musicians. One of the special things about improvised music is that the audience discovers the music at the same time as the musicians, and it is this shared engagement in the music as it happens that makes it so wonderful.”


He is survived by his partner, Joanna.

The Herald, March 2021




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