John Russell (born London, 1954) is an acoustic guitarist who has worked exclusively in the field of free improvisation since the 1970s. He has been active consistently during that time as a promoter of concerts of freely improvised music in London, providing hundreds of playing opportunities for both local and international musicians. Russell has appeared on more than 50 published recordings. He has been described as "...an acoustic guitar loyalist who always manages to combine a classical delicacy with the fire of rock".
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. 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. In 1975, he helped co-found the journal Musics. Russell took weekly lessons in conventional technique from Derek Bailey for about a year, then in 1977 he gave up the electric guitar to play the acoustic guitar exclusively.
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); its 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."
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 1983, he appeared in the Channel 4 TV documentary Jazz on Four: Crossing Bridges which looked at four innovators of jazz and improvised guitar. The other players were Brian Godding, Fred Frith, Ron Geesin, Hans Reichel and Keith Rowe. His feature on the late Japanese improvising guitarist, Masayuki Takayanagi was broadcast on BBC Radio 3's Jazz on 3 on 22 February 2010.
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 in association with John Butcher and Phil Durrant in order to release the trio's debut recording Conceits. The label went on to produce a number of vinyl LPs, CDs and cassettes with a focus on free improvisation.
In the mid-1980s Russell founded the improvised music club Mopomoso with help initially from pianist, trumpeter and composer Chris Burn. 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. The club relocated to The Vortex Jazz Club later that same year and its monthly promotions are ongoing.
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, Sylvia Hallett, Louis Moholo, Phil Minton, Veryan Weston, Roger Turner, Tim Hodgkinson, Maggie Nicols, Tania Chen, Sabu Toyozumi, Steve Beresford, John Edwards, Kay Grant, Gail Brand, Oren Marshall, Ute Wasserman, Pat Thomas, Gino Robair, Steve Noble, Terry Day, Alan Tomlinson, Alan Wilkinson, John Coxon, Alex Ward, Martin Speake, Adam Bohman and Max Eastley.
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.