John Russell is an acoustic guitarist who has worked exclusively in the field of free improvisation since the 1970s.
John Russell was raised by his grandparents in rural Kent, who gave him his first guitar at the age of 11. He moved to London at the age of 17 and quickly became involved with the free improvisation scene, playing at The Little Theatre Club (run by drummer and educator John Stevens), Ronnie Scott’s, The Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Musicians’ Co-Op and the London Musicians’ Collective. At his first concerts, he played an electric guitar, but in the mid-’70s he traded his instrument for a 1936 Zenith acoustic guitar. Predating amplification, this guitar possesses a very large resonance chamber that gives it a much louder sound than most guitars
He has been consistently active promoting concerts of freely improvised music in London, providing hundreds of playing opportunities for both local and international musicians. From 1974 his work extended into teaching, broadcasts (radio and television) and touring in the United Kingdom and other countries around the world. He has played with many of the world’s leading improvisers and his work can be heard on over 50 CDs and albums.
He tours regularly, has a long-running trio with saxophonist John Butcher and violinist Phil Durrant, as well as duos with Roger Turner, Stefan Keune, Phil Minton, Evan Parker and Luc Houtkamp. In 1981, he founded QUAQUA, a large bank of improvisers put together in different combinations for specific projects. In the mid-1980s he founded the improvised music club Mopomoso which promoted around 300 regular monthly concerts at the Red Rose Club in London until the venue’s transfer of ownership in January 2008. Now relocated in The Vortex Jazz Club, Mopomoso’s monthly promotions are ongoing, and it has become the UK’s longest running concert series featuring mainly improvised music.
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.
His early influences include Robert Fripp, Sonny Sharrock and Derek Bailey who taught Russell electric guitar in 1977. His mature style overlaps significantly with that of Bailey including wide intervals, percussive attack, and systematic variation of timbre and means of production. However his unpredictable and challenging individuality shines through in subtler pacing and mood. He tends to dwell almost circularly on chords and, in groups, prefers to merge into the larger ensemble sound playing with, rather than against or aslant, the other musicians.
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.
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