John Russell

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John Russell got hold of his first guitar in 1965 and began playingin and around London from 1971… ” Apart from his solo career, thisguitarist has been playing with John Butcher, Phil Durrant, StefanKeune, Roger Turner, Phil Minton, Gina Southgate, Hugh Davies, LucHoutkamp, John Edwards, Mark Sanders, the Chris Burn Ensemble, andabove all he’s been collaborating many times with mighty Evan Parker.Many consider Russell one of the last living legends coming out of theEnglish improvisational scene and for those of you who never heard hisstyle, I think one of the best definitions I can quote is that of areviewer who said: “…just as Evan Parker could be considered’Post-Coltrane’, so too is guitarist John Russell ‘Post-Bailey’… “.John is the co-founder of MOPOMOSO (1988), London’s longest runningconcert series featuring mainly improvised music. His releases havebeen put out by labels such as Incus, Emanem and Inaudible… I think hiscredentials speak for themselves, but what surprised me the most ishow this man has been able to remain down to earth regardless of hisincredible work. I don’t know if he got the attention he reallydeserved, but I’ve no doubt that speaking of Russell in terms of “bestkept secret” would be too restrictive and above all while reading youcan’t but notice the sharp intellect of this musician.

Chain D.L.K.: Who bought you your first guitar or who instilled the passion for music and playing in you. On the front cover of “Home cooking” you’re pictured with your granny. Is she responsible in some direct/indirect way?
John Russell: I never knew my mother, having been left with my paternal grandparents by my father when I was 15 months old. Apparently with the words “Here you are Mum. Here’s a present for you”. We lived in a very rural environment and when I was 11 years old I went to the local grammar school in the nearest town, where one of the guys in my class was playing the guitar and hanging out with some of the older kids, who seemed to know a lot more about what was going on than us first years. I pestered my grandparents for a guitar and next time we were in town my grandfather didn’t buy the new shoes he wanted and bought me a guitar instead. I had a book to learn from and every lunch break I’d ask the older kids how to play things, so with this and the help of the local library, the music press, school music events and a friend with more money than me who liked buying records, I put together some kind of basic technique. My grandfather died when I was thirteen, a month before he was due to retire. He always said that he would like to make me a guitar when he retired and, as he was a very practical man who enjoyed working with wood, I’m sure it would have been a fine instrument. The picture from the front cover of ‘Home Cooking’ is me with my grandmother standing on the steps of the house I grew up in and where my contribution to that album was recorded. It was an old army hut with asbestos walls and the outside, wooden walls were covered with a mixture of stones and cement to make it appear more solid. The house was some way from the village so there weren’t many distractions when I wanted to play the guitar, although once when using a four watt amplifier someone complained from over a mile away. I’d probably just discovered feedback! From about the age of fourteen or fifteen I used to go out nearly every Saturday night to see the ‘trendy’ groups play in a venue in Folkestone – Colosseum, Blodwyn Pig, The Soft Machine, Van de Graaf Generator, Ten Years After, Patto, The Strawbs, Barclay James Harvest, that kind of thing, and I was playing each week in a group made up of local musicians where I wrote all the material and took all the solos! Well not really, but I was keen and it was great to be able to try out ideas.

Chain D.L.K.: And when/how did you get hooked by the free-improvisational thing?
John Russell: Well, I’d read a piece by Robert Fripp where he said his top three favourite guitarists were Segovia, Julian Bream and Jimi Hendrix and that the people who were pushing the boundaries of the instrument furthest were Derek Bailey and Sonny Sharrock. On the next visit to town my friend ordered (there weren’t big distribution cartels in those days) a couple of Tony Oxley records (The Baptised Traveller and Four Compositions for Sextet) and I tried to make sense of what I heard of the guitar. I’d also read about John Cage and was listening to anything I could find that I thought was ‘out there somewhere’! In my group I would try setting up some sort of background structure and then try to play by chance, just letting my fingers fall on the strings. This was at the same time as having pieces in ‘difficult’ time signatures and writing silly words to ‘songs’. I was a real Frank Zappa nut back then as well. Anyway when I left school (at the earliest opportunity) I went to work on a farm because I didn’t want a career type job. One of the musicians in the local band had gone to college to learn instrument making and had met a bass player he thought I should meet. Through him I found another group of musicians living in a town just north of London. I moved there and got another farm labouring job. We used to come into London and at a Musicians Co-Op concert at Ronnie Scott’s by the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, a number of important things happened. I met Derek Bailey who said he gave guitar lessons, I heard Evan Parker for the first time and I recognised someone in the audience from my first year at school. He had left after the first year and was now having drum lessons from John Stevens. We hooked up and at another concert he introduced me to another drummer Dave Solomon. Dave was going to the Little Theatre Club and I asked if we could play there as a duo. Dave had a different kit from the rock drummers I was used to playing with but I was still using an electric guitar (Grimshaw Les Paul) and playing through a borrowed Orange hundred watt stack which was a bit excessive as the venue only had seating for about thirty people!. The lessons from Derek were very useful. His first words to me had been ‘I don’t teach how I play’ and I had replied that I wanted to learn all I could about the guitar. I had lessons once a week for about a year and Derek was true to his word, as I learnt some very important things about conventional plectrum guitar playing, scales, chord voicings and the like. While developing a solid foundation in conventional technique I began playing with other musicians at The Little Theatre Club and moved to London. I suppose I was initially attracted to free improvisation on record because it sounded different from everything else. I was intrigued and, after hearing it live for the first time (Evan’s solo is still an enduring memory) I felt it was for me on a very direct level. To put that more succinctly; records intrigued me but live music engaged me.

Chain D.L.K.: The other day I was reading one of the last interviews with Luciano Berio. Speaking about improvisation he was referred to it by saying: “…for I think there’re several exceptions to this… improvisation has been a good shelter for many unprofessional musicians that probably were more skilled in looking for a good alibi than in judging themselves in relation to any hystorical perspective of music”?
John Russell: Oh Dear! If I was feeling charitable I would put Berio’s comments down to indigestion but I guess there is something more to it than that. He does seem very insecure and his lashing out at improvisation is belittling to him, his legacy, music in general and improvisation in particular. ‘Good alibis’ and ‘good shelters’ can also be found in ‘professionalism’ and ‘the history of music’ as they can be in almost anything. Everything has its share of dilettantes and charlatans so one has to ask why Berio has taken against improvisation in such a whining fashion. Maybe on a personal level he had bad experiences with it, couldn’t do it. didn’t ‘get it’ or simply doesn’t like it, but I suspect there is a more prosaic underlying reason. Many composers in the past have decried improvisation precisely because it is not composed and this leaves them without a role to play. Then there is the thorny question of money. I feel that group improvisation at its best is egalitarian and with composition there has to be a hierarchy with the composition and therefore the composer at the top. A side effect of this is that commissions to compose are more tangible for bureaucrats to understand; the score being a perceivable end result. Maybe he was frightened that improvisation is a threat to the bureaucracy that supports his music. In which case I have to say I think he is being a bit of an arse because as far as I am aware there is so little support for improvised music that it is hardly a worthwhile sea for him to want to swim in. The whole polemic is rather tawdry and a bit tired for me and I can’t really add much except to say that good improvisers improvise creatively to make good music and good composers compose creatively to make good music and that for me music has been and still is a wonderful thing.

Chain D.L.K.: Actually I’ve been listening to a lot of improvisational acts during the last years, both live and on recordings, I’ve caught myself thinking that quite often many of the impros probably were heading in a predictable direction. Don’t you think with the social “justification” of improvising, many musicians are blindly following some dogmas like what happened with free-jazz combos playing a weak version of what Ornette Coleman did ages ago?
John Russell: I think that music proceeds by imitation and repetition. We hear a sound we like and want to copy it and find out how it is made. Similarly we may discover a sound while playing that we like and want to know how to repeat it. This of course comes from a natural desire to become acquainted with the materials of music and the capabilities of our instruments but is not music itself. I think a sound can have a ‘stand alone’ quality but to present that sound as music is for me a bit like catching a rare animal and then displaying its head on a wall. The use of it in a context is what gets us closer to what music is. In free improvisation we try to build a bank of such material that is adaptable and this can lead to certain materials being preferable to others. However sometimes sounds come to us and the important thing here, and it is very important, is to be open to these possibilities. I recently heard a very good quote from Picasso. Someone said they didn’t understand his painting and he asked them if they liked ham. When they said ‘yes’ he said ‘But do you understand it?’ It is a two track process of creating and discovering. Some people make great music with a limited arsenal while others have larger resources to draw on so there is no direct correlation between playing abilities and the ability to play good music. I also believe there is no such thing as an all encompassing technique. There is always something new. I suppose it is simply about going forward and being open to possibilities. To paraphrase the English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham it’s not just about liking the sound it makes. As for social ‘justification’ playing improvised music has been illegal in the past and maybe it will be in the future but despite being seen as a peripheral activity and even dangerous by a number of people in the establishment we are nevertheless allowed to do it. Not all of it will be good and not all of it will be bad, some of it will be sublime and some of it execrable. It is as well to remember that a generic label (jazz, classical, folk, baroque, electro etc.) is not a guarantee of quality but only a rough description of an area. What may seem like a quantum leap into new territory by an individual nearly always turns out to be built on a knowledge of one’s peers and predecessors. However I have met people who say they would like to play free but don’t want to until they can play like Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman first which has always struck me as being either arrogant, disrespectful to the enormous creativity of those musicians, or just plain stupid.

Chain D.L.K.: And what about “sound and melody”? Lately I’ve had a long discussion with a friend; he was disappointed by the fact many improvisers, above all in Europe are somehow afraid to play something different by suffocated notes, scratched instruments and aphasic sounds. Quite often I’ve also asked myself if for some musician to play even just a short melodic segment would represent a defeat. When I think of AMM, late Bailey, Evan Parker… I think their music was/is somehow melodic or at least emotionally charged…
John Russell: Firstly I like the idea that any sound we can get from an instrument can be used as valid musical material. Also to look at these sounds in terms of what we can use to convey information. Pitch, timbre, dynamics, location, place in time and tempo/pulse can all be manipulated to do this. We are also looking for a set of material that is ‘without prior assumption’; one that can be open to an unfolding of the music in real time. All these things are, in fact, impossible as any attempt at universality always fails. This paradox though, is for me, a cause for celebration, as it highlights the creativity and uniqueness of the individual musician. Sometimes the transients found in the attack of a note carry a wealth of information and the ‘suffocation’, ‘scratched’ or ‘aphasic’ can be the results of exploring this. It can also come from a desire for imprecision or ambiguity which is a very useful tool in improvisation and indeed in certain types of composed music. I do however also like to let the instrument show me things and let it have its voice, to sing as it were, and I feel that this constantly changing relationship between the player and the instrument is a crucial factor in making music. The overall ‘shape’ of the music is also important and there is a narrative like anticipation present in playing. This can take on a melodic form. Practicing different pitch relationships in the form of scales and their harmonic relatives is invaluable not only for the fingers and ears but also for the ideas. Somewhere in all this is a simple desire to make it sound good. When I first formed the trio with John Butcher and Phil Durrant, we rehearsed every week concentrating on specific aspects of the sound. ‘Let’s play texturally at a low volume’, ‘melodically at a high volume’, ‘four short pieces with no development’ etc. These were exercises only and we were listening out for what the group could produce together and what we were each capable of within it. It was consciously without the idea of perfecting a pre-ordained music. Integrity comes not from whether to play a melody or not, but whether one is true to the music of the group you are playing with without giving up your own identity within it.

Chain D.L.K.: “…whether one is true to the music of the group you are playing with without giving up your own identity within it.”…so when has Russell discovered his own identity? When and how while playing did you start thinking you were not an imitator but you had your own sound/style?

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John Russell: There’s no really simple answer to that question. On the one hand I could say never, as I try to keep open to influences all the time and we are all following on from other musicians. It’s a question of trying things on and seeing what fits. Some things come ‘off the peg’, some need alteration and some you have to design for yourself. An influence after copying rock solos in my early teens was, of course, the work of Derek Bailey and I really went to town on his approach of playing the whole instrument but I was also taking on board bits from George van Epps in terms of looking at the fingerboard, transcribing banjo solos and messing about with prepared guitar, among other things. Basically throwing in anything I could find that might sound OK to me. When I ditched the electric guitar around 1974 I found I really began to get somewhere and I made a conscious decision not to listen too much to Derek’s music for a few years as I wanted to get out from under his shadow. So then I had an acoustic guitar and a whole bunch of musicians to play with and nowhere to hide. I suppose there then came a gradual process of finding what suited me and working on that. Every now and then I hit upon something that works and then try to analyze it to see if it can be extended. Other strings, different parts of the neck, inversions etc and I also keep a look out for other relationships and changing attitudes on a more personal / emotional level to the material. I find that what works for me at the moment is to have the preparation to a concert done in advance (no five minutes to set up please!) and a chance to relax before playing (but not so long as to loose focus). Charlie Parker sometimes liked to leave a club between sets to look at the stars or walk in the park. He called it ‘changing the mental scenery’ and I feel that this also happens within the act of playing itself. I guess these things all come together over time and continue to grow. I don’t think there will ever be a time when I feel there is a ‘right or wrong way’ to play music and I think that one’s aspirations should be directed with self- awareness but not self-consciousness if you see what I mean. Above all, it’s when it becomes enjoyable and engaging (i.e giving something back) that you know you’re on to something.

Chain D.L.K.: Some urban legends around Mr. Russell mark him as an “uncompromising player”, beside that you’re playing with Evan Parker that many people mark as another “uncompromising player” as well. Honestly I’ve had the impression you really look a humble person and the musicians I know that had the chance to collaborate with you share the same opinion. So …is the world full of “uncompromising players” or does it all have to do with the weight of coming from the “legendary” British “dead serious” impro-scene of the Seventies?
John Russell: I think it would be wrong for me to try to play any other music for extrinsic reasons (money, kudos etc.) not only because my heart would not be in it but also because there are so many people who can do it better. Why add yet another guy playing the same old stuff? I’m only really any good at playing my own music. Of course if people are interested in working with that and that’s what they want, then I am not averse to working in many different situations, as it feeds back to my musical world and I hope adds something to theirs. It’s possible to collaborate without compromise. In fact I think it is impossible for an improviser to both compromise and improvise well. The improviser should bring all they have to the playing situation and be open to what is possible and be themselves. As I understand it, to compromise is to lose something, like trying to play with one hand tied behind your back or no strings. I’m more like, ‘Well this is what I do. I hope it works. If not then no hard feelings.’ Generally speaking it’s always better to say ‘What if?’ rather than have to say ‘If only’, later. I’ve had conversations recently with a couple of people about how the improvised music scene has changed since the Seventies and one of the things that came out was that they both thought that a lot of the musicians playing around London these days play other forms of music, as well as improvising, and that improvisation is sometimes seen by them as a style to add to their repertoire. I don’t really want to comment on that but certainly in the Seventies there was a feeling of discovery and that is a crucial part of the music for me. I find that not to allow that possibility within the playing situation makes playing impossible for me. I am not ‘trained’ to do that. If looking to play interesting music is uncompromising then I’m uncompromising.I remember a conversation with Jamie Muir where he felt that the improvisation he was playing in the early Seventies was an anti-music played in opposition to other musics of the time. I suppose that there was that feeling in the earlier days from some players but then any new approach tends to want to create a polemic in order to make space for itself in a broader cultural scene. For me growing up with this music in the Seventies it felt that freely improvised music was worth protecting and nurturing and I suppose this was a serious pursuit but it was also a lot of fun. Despite some of the ‘put downs’ we weren’t all ‘scowling faces under wooly hats’ as one journalist put it at the time. In fact a lot of these perceptions came from journalists who really didn’t know what to do with us. There was even talk of ‘Is serious music a place for humour?’ from them when they saw some of our concerts. As the main force behind Mopomoso (which is London’s longest running concert series dedicated to free improvisation) I would say there are many excellent improvisers here and like the Seventies not enough support for them. The funding situation with the 2012 Olympics, coupled with the state of the economy, the ‘dumbing down’ by the media and the wilful ignorance of ‘the powers that be’ all keep the need to work for this music as important now as it was then.

Chain D.L.K.: Beside being your main occupation what have you received from your music and above all what brings a musician like you to push forward instead of just sitting down and resting on your laurels with the assumption that other people should treat you like a sort of guru?
John Russell: My first trip abroad was as a young man, going to play a concert in Brussels. I had to get a passport. Looking out of the window at a flat landscape with fields of cows I can remember thinking, ‘Music has given me this.’ This was really stupid as my childhood was spent in the countryside of Kent, where it was also flat and had its own share of fields with cows in them! Since then though I have travelled quite widely for an ex-country boy and developed a genuine feeling for the big city that is London, where I first came to play improvised music and which has been my base for over thirty five years. But it is not only travel per se that I’ve got from music. There is also the opportunity to mix with many different people and make lasting friendships across the world. This may seem extrinsic to music but these experiences also supply and inform the way one plays and creates. I want to continue to do this for as long as I can.A friend once said that he thought travel narrows the mind. In a way it does because there is always a constant refinement of ideas but it also gives new perspectives and new ideas. It’s not so much about making music as finding the situations where it can happen in both the external physical world and one’s own internal world. It is all a journey for which we make the maps. Very importantly there is a real and lasting pleasure to be had from finding a world, in my case a musical one, in which to have and share adventures. You can’t stand still, ever! I genuinely believe that people who have tried to do so begin to rot in some way and we don’t want that now, do we?

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[interviewed by Andrea Ferraris] [proofreading by Joanna]


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