Something Else! Interview: Jazz guitarist John Russell

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John Russell is a guitar player who seems to have been on the scene a long time, yet remains just under the radar. After seeing John play a couple of times with his long-term cohorts saxophone player Evan Parker and bassist John Edwards, and being struck by his intuitive playing, I decided to get more insight into this inventive player for this exclusive Something Else! Sitdown. Russell proved to be an enthusiastic and refreshingly forthcoming interviewee, which made profiling him easy. He started with his background …

“I was born in Battersea, London in late 1954,” Russell told us. “My birth certificate says my mother was called Wenda Weston. When I was 15 months old, I went to live with my father’s grandparents in Ruckinge, a small village on the edge of Romney Marsh in Kent. I never saw my mother again. For a short time, I would call my father ‘Uncle Derek’ when he came to visit (usually at Christmas) but the deceit did not hold for long as it was clear he was my father. My great grandmother was still alive and my grandparents looked after a small amount of land, which was quite a struggle. My early years were spent climbing trees, falling into ponds and nettle patches, catching lizards, frogs and fish and all the other things a country boy got up to in the late ’50s and early ’60s.”

Russell came to love music from an early age. He says: “I passed my 11-plus exam and went to the local grammar school in Ashford, Kent, where another first-year boy in my class called Geoff Manuel had a Martin Colletti guitar, which he would bring in and use to play with some of the older kids. I immediately wanted one, and put constant pressure on my grandfather to get me a guitar. Eventually, on our monthly ‘big shop’ in town, my pressure paid off. Instead of buying himself the new shoes he wanted, my grandfather bought me a cheap, steel-strung acoustic guitar and a book called ‘A Tune a Day.’ From then on, I was never without a guitar. My grandfather died when I was 13, a month before he was due to retire — which was a shame, because one of his retirement projects was to have been to build a guitar, as he was a keen woodworker.

“A friend in the village with more resources than me had also got the music bug, so he would buy records which we would devour. The first one I bought was called The Rock Machine Turns You On (a sampler album by Columbia Records with Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen and Moby Grape, amongst others, released in 1968) and then We’re Only In It For The Money by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (also issued in 1968, on Verve Records). It was a time when people would listen to an eclectic mix so everything was given an ear.

“My 14-year-old influences were mostly rock and blues, taking in John Mayall, Frank Zappa, Muddy Waters, King Crimson and others. By the time I left school at 16, I wanted to be a guitar player and was listening to everything and everyone, trying to find out as much as I could about the instrument and music. When I was 17, I heard the London Jazz Composers Orchestra (an influential group formed in the 1970s by Barry Guy, which supported improvisation and free playing) and was captivated by an Evan Parker solo, met Derek Bailey and saw an old school pal who was having drum lessons from John Stevens. I went on to have guitar lessons from Derek, who was also a session musician so I filled in a lot of gaps in my conventional technique. I also read books on serialism (a composing technique) and atonality at an early age and books on sound and hearing. This was all part of my wish to ‘play the whole instrument’ and not just particular stylistic parts of it.

“I got offered a gig at the Little Theatre in Bromley from John, which I did in a duo with the drummer Dave Solomon and have since formed a life-long friendship and musical partnership with Evan. So, since the age of 17, I have been playing this music in public, learning as I go along and in the process playing with some remarkably talented people.”

I asked Russell where he first performed and what people or bands he has played with: “My first ever gig was playing a couple of songs with some older kids at a Girl Guides party in Ashford, Kent, when I was 14 and I was paid with a bright red, curly guitar lead. In terms of free playing, I was doing a lot at the Little Theatre, which was what we called the Little Theatre Club — a small fringe theatre just of Upper St Martin’s Lane in the West End of London. It played host to most of John Stevens groups.

“I also played for the Musicians’ Co-Op at Ronnie Scott’s at times. I was later asked to join the Co-Op properly, and played many times at the old Unity Theatre in London’s Mornington Crescent before it burnt down. I also organised stuff at various places and a regular session at the Artist’s Meeting Place in Covent Garden. My first concert abroad was with the guitarist Roger Smith at the Palais de Beaux Arts, Brussells, around 1977.”

Of the music he enjoys now: “I listen to everything and nothing, really. By that I mean I don’t stick to particular genres and I have quite an indiscriminate approach, preferring to trawl the internet or radio. I also vary the depth of my listening, so I am embarrassed to say I do have music ‘on in the background’ while I’m doing other things. Other times, I will have a dedicated listening session, usually on a pair of near-field monitors. I have used headphones but I don’t really like the isolation from my surroundings. Maybe the only thing I can say I listen to with any regularity is guitar music and there’s an awful lot of that around!”

About his philosophy on life and music: “I think music, both playing and listening, is good for the heart and mind and is central to everything I do. For me everything relates to music and music relates to everything else. A motto could be, ‘It’s all grist to the mill.’”

On his musical framework: “My influences are again everything, really. When you play in a way where any sound from the instrument is up for consideration as being of possible musical use, then anything and everything is an influence. I could add to what I said about guitar music that the pipa (a Chinese, lute-like guitar instrument), shamisen (a Japanese three-stringed instrument) and other non western plucked instruments have given me a lot of inspiration.”

I asked Russell about how he feels when he plays, the emotions when he performs and the reactions from audiences: “After setting up, I like to take a short break to clear the head. Immediately before playing, I like to touch the guitar a little, maybe playing a note and then singing it to myself. Posture is important, so I have the guitar on my left leg and facing forward. Projection is related to expansiveness, generosity and not necessarily volume.

“I then try to make myself as vulnerable or as open as possible — a kind of ‘getting in the zone.’ In order to get to that place, I find that I need to feel positive so if I do have any negative vibes I have to shut them out completely. You have to learn to accept and follow what I call the musical imperative: Give yourself to the music. This communicates in the most direct way possible to an audience, and we share this experience together as the music unfolds. For me, recordings of this music can only go so far and to really ‘get it’ you need to see the importance of the live experience.”

Audiences are important to Russell, who adds: “I have found people interested and enthusiastic everywhere from Japan to Brazil. It seems that the music has spread around the world in a remarkably short time, and you can find some improvised music and informed audiences in most places these days. When I play, I’m taking in the music and its subtleties, trying to follow it as it unfolds.

“Evan Parker once described our trio with John Edwards as like ‘three tightrope walkers holding a safety net for each other,’ so musicians are incredibly close to each other on stage. I like this physically, as well. Seeing one’s colleagues across a big expanse of stage doesn’t feel very inspiring. It is the immediacy and closeness that matters, and it makes sharing the music with audiences much easier. The main thing is that people listen in a direct way and don’t try to mediate through a lens of how they think things should be. There’s the story of Picasso being told by someone that they didn’t understand his painting to which he said, ‘Do you like ham?’ ‘Yes’ came the reply. ‘And do you understand it?’ he asked. K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple, Stupid. The music doesn’t need extra bits tacked on whether, as explanation or ornament — and, in fact, if you try that then there is no music anymore. Playing and listening: It all comes back to that.”

I asked Russell how he felt jazz is accepted at the moment in the UK or elsewhere — and free form, in particular: “I think that parts of the establishment don’t ‘get it,’ but the audiences do. I’m not too much of a fan of the ‘jazz’ label though, as it seems to mean different things to different people and carries a certain amount of stylistic baggage.”

In 1991, Russell set up the Mopomoso project together with trumpeter and composer Chris Burn to promote free and improvised music. Now based at the Vortex in London, it is the UK’s longest-running concert series devoted to improvised music and has presented many concerts and events as well as offering services to musicians such as advice to organisers. Mopomoso also hosts a large on-line music film collection.

Of future projects and up-coming events, Russell says: “I would like to keep playing and listening. To continue working on Mopomoso and to work more often with the musicians I work with now, as well as meet new ones. I have Fete Quaqua (a regular event) coming up at the Vortex on August 17-19, 2014. On October 9, I go to Amsterdam to play with Evan Parker, John Edwards and Han Bennink then I go to Hannover for the 25th anniversary festivities of Gunter Christmann’s Vario. There are lots of other things (the duo tour with Stale, for instance) and December 19, 2014 is my 60th birthday and I will be at Cafe Oto for a musical celebration. Also expected in the near future are some CD releases — a quartet with Stale Liavik Solberg, Steve Beresford and John Edwards; a four-disc box set of the Mopomoso tour; and duos with Sabu Toyozumi and Phil Minton.”

Playing live, Russell is alert, intently listening to the other musicians and often joins in first softly, almost gently before his guitar soars. Communication and exceptional talent — if that is what makes good music, then John Russell nailed it.

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