John Russell (musician)

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John Russell
John Russell performs with Mopomoso at the Vortex Jazz Club in April 2010.
John Russell performs with Mopomoso at the Vortex Jazz Club in April 2010.
Background information
Kent, England
GenresFree improvisation
InstrumentsAcoustic guitar
Years active1970s–present

John Russell (born 1954) is an acoustic guitarist who has worked in the field of free improvisation since the 1970s. He has promoted concerts and has appeared on more than 50 recordings.[1]

Early years[edit]

John Russell was raised by his paternal grandparents in rural Kent, and his grandfather gave him his first guitar at the age of 11. At school, he taught himself guitar and formed a group to perform his compositions. He discovered free improvisation after King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp suggested that Derek Bailey and Sonny Sharrock were the two musicians doing the most to push the boundaries of the instrument.[2] On moving to London at the age of 17, he quickly became involved with the free improvisation scene, playing at The Little Theatre Club (run by drummer and educator John Stevens), becoming a member of the Musicians' Co-op and starting to organise concerts.[3] In 1975, he helped co-found the journal Musics. Russell took weekly lessons in conventional technique from Derek Bailey for about a year,[2] then in 1977 he gave up the electric guitar to play the acoustic guitar exclusively.[4]


While his mature guitar technique inevitably overlaps with that of Derek Bailey, there are important differences. In a review of Analekta (Emanem, 2006) Nate Dorward writes: "Russell's debt to the instrumental vocabulary of Derek Bailey is clear throughout, especially in his attraction to wide intervals, his resolutely segmented, percussive attack, and his systematic variation of timbre and means of production (open string, fretted, harmonic, behind-the-bridge pling); it's in subtler matters of pacing and mood that his individuality comes through. He tends to dwell pensively, almost circularly, on chords or motivic cells that Bailey would have brusquely disposed of, and has a very different approach to group playing, preferring to merge into the larger ensemble sound (whatever the size of the group), and play with rather than against or aslant his musical partners.”[5]

In 1983, he appeared in the Channel 4 TV documentary Jazz on Four: Crossing Bridges which looked at six innovators of jazz and improvised guitar. The other players were Brian Godding, Fred Frith, Ron Geesin, Hans Reichel and Keith Rowe.[6]

Apart from solo playing, Russell can be seen playing in numerous one-off performances with musicians at his monthly Mopomoso club in London. He tours regularly, has a long-running trio with saxophonist John Butcher and violinist Phil Durrant and duos with Roger Turner, Stefan Keune, Phil Minton, Evan Parker and Luc Houtkamp. In 1981, he founded Quaqua, an ensemble that varies in size and draws from a large pool of improvisers. In 2009 he formed House Full of Floors with Evan Parker and John Edwards.[7]

In the last few years Russell has ended his exclusive association with acoustic guitar by playing electric guitar in several live performances including as part of Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic ensemble and in a duo with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. [8] In December 2014 Russell played in a concert with Evan Parker, Thurston Moore and others to celebrate his 60th birthday despite being under hospital supervision for a serious heart condition.[8] After a quadruple heart bypass operation in March 2015 he was reported to be "well on the road to recovery".[8]

His feature on the late Japanese improvising guitarist, Masayuki Takayanagi was broadcast on BBC Radio 3's Jazz on 3 on 22 February 2010.[9]

Other notable improvising acoustic guitar recordings include Green Wood (Emanem, 2002) by Roger Smith and Velocity of Hue by Elliott Sharp (Emanem, 2003).


In 1988 Russell helped establish Acta Records with John Butcher and Phil Durrant to release the trio's debut album, Conceits.[10]


In the mid-1980s Russell founded the improvised music club Mopomoso with help initially from pianist, trumpeter and composer Chris Burn.[11] The club promoted around 300 regular monthly concerts at the Red Rose Club in London until the venue's transfer of ownership in January 2008.[12] The club relocated to The Vortex Jazz Club later that same year and its monthly promotions are ongoing.[13]

Performers at the club include established as well as younger players, local musicians and international guests. Notable players have recently included: Evan Parker, Richard Barrett, Lol Coxhill, John Butcher, Louis Moholo, Phil Minton, Veryan Weston, Roger Turner, Tim Hodgkinson, Maggie Nicols, Tania Chen, Sabu Toyozumi, Steve Beresford, Gino Robair, John Coxon, Alexander Hawkins, Caroline Kraabel, Cleveland Watkiss, Lawrence Casserley, Trevor Watts and Max Eastley.[14]

Mopomoso special promotions include an annual Christmas event featuring a large number of improvising musicians playing over the course of an afternoon and evening in various combinations; occasional workshops; and Fete Quaqua where a large pool of musicians is assembled to play in different groupings over the course of three evenings in a similar manner to Derek Bailey's Company Week.

In 2013 Sound and Music took the club on a seven date tour of England.[15]


As leader[edit]

  • Teatime with Garry Todd & Dave Solomon (Incus, 1975)
  • Home Cooking/Guitar Solos with Richard Coldman (Incus, 1979)
  • Artless Sky with Kondo Toshinori & Roger Turner (Caw, 1980)
  • Conceits with Durrant/Butcher (Acta, 1987)
  • News from the Shed with Butcher/Durrant/Lovens/Malfatti (Acta, 1989)
  • Concert Moves with Butcher/Durrant (Random Acoustics, 1995)
  • Birthdays with Roger Turner (Emanem, 1996)
  • The Scenic Route with Phil Durrant (Emanem, 1999)
  • The Fairly Young Bean with Maarten Altena & Terry Day (Emanem, 1999)
  • The Second Sky with Roger Turner (Emanem, 2001)
  • Excerpts & Offerings with John Stefan Keune (Acta, 2001)
  • From Next to Last (Emanem, 2002)
  • Frequency of Use with John Stefan Keune (Nur/Nicht/Nur, 2003)
  • Creative in Hodogawa Vol. 11 Sangeraku with Sabu Toyozumi & Kemmy Nishioka (May 2nd, 2004)
  • Mopomoso Solos 2002 with Chris Burn, Lol Coxhill (Emanem, 2004)
  • Three Planets with Ute Volker & Mathieu Werchowski (Emanem, 2004)
  • Analekta (Emanem, 2007)
  • Duet with Martine Altenburger (Another Timbre, 2010)
  • The Cigar That Talks with Russell/Turner (Piednu, 2010)
  • Hyste (Psi, 2010)
  • Translations with Pascal Marzan (Emanem, 2011)
  • Home with Frederick Lonberg-Holm (Peira, 2012)
  • Trio Blurb (Extraplatte, 2013)
  • Untitled Improvisation (Another Timbre, 2013)
  • No Step with Stale Liavik Solberg (Hispid, 2014)
  • After-Dinner with Andrea Ferraris (Fratto9 Under the Sky, 2014)
  • Will It Float? with Beresford/Edwards/Liavik Solberg (Va Fongool, 2015)
  • With... (Emanem, 2015)
  • Ditch School with Paul G. Smyth (Weekertoft, 2017)
  • Serpentes with Duerinckx/Safatly (Weekertoft, 2019)
  • Nothing Particularly Horrible with Keune/Schneider/Lovens (FMR, 2019)
  • The Dukes of Bedford with Olie Brice/Henry Kaiser (Fractal/Balance Point, 2020)

As sideman[edit]

With Evan Parker

  • London Air Lift (FMP, 1997)
  • Crossing the River (Psi, 2006)
  • House Full of Floors (Tzadik, 2009)
  • Reunion Live from Cafe Oto (FMR, 2017)
  • Walthamstow Moon (ByrdOut, 2017)

With others


  1. ^ Richard Cook & Brian Morton (2000), Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, Fifth Edition, p. 1165.
  2. ^ a b Ferraris, Andrea (2008) "Chain D.L.K Presents an Interview with John Russell", Chain D.L.K.
  3. ^ Grundy, David (2009) "An Interview with John Russell", Eartrip Magazine Issue 4, pp. 26–34
  4. ^ Davidson, Martin (2002) sleeve notes to From Next to Last, Emanem
  5. ^ Dorward, Nate (June 2007) Analekta Review, Paris Transatlantic
  6. ^ Izzard, Bryan and Anthony, Neil (1983) Jazz on Four: Crossing Bridges, Channel 4
  7. ^ Review of House Full of Floors by Bill Meyer in Dusted
  8. ^ a b c Davidson, Martin (2015) sleeve notes for With… (Emanem)
  9. ^ Feature on Japanese guitarist Masayuki 'Jojo' Takayanagi (22 February 2010), Jazz on 3", BBC Radio 3
  10. ^ Acta Records list of recordings
  11. ^ Davidson, Martin (2006), sleeve notes to Analekta CD, Emanem
  12. ^ England, Phil "John Russell/Henry Lowther + Chefa Alonso/Tony Marsh + Alexander Hawkins Quartet, Red Rose", The Wire, March 2008
  13. ^ See and The Vortex Jazz Club.
  14. ^ Mopomoso concert footage on Youtube
  15. ^ Sound and Music Mopomoso Tour project page
  • John Russell, International Who's Who in Popular Music (2002), Routledge

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]