Interviews


John Russell guitarist 1
To start off with, maybe you could tell us how you became involved with free music. A lot of first-generation British free improvisers arrived from jazz; given that you came on the scene slightly later, was your route any different?
I was brought up by my paternal grandparents in a very rural setting so when I went to the local grammar school I noticed that another kid in my class was playing guitar and hanging out with older kids. I badgered my grandparents to get me a guitar and a tutorial book and a after a while set up a little group playing a kind of mix of pieces I’d written and blues/rock music. Not very good but it helped me try things out. I had a friend who bought records I’d heard of, in the days when you could go to the local record shop and order stuff, and checked out the early SME and Tony Oxley recordings. I left home to move to London when I was seventeen and played at the Little Theatre club, became a member of the original Musicians’ Co-Op and started organising concerts.
I wondered if you thought there was a great difference in approach between the music being made now and that being made in those earlier days, in terms of the performative aspects of the work and the variety of textures produced. Looking back at some of the discographies, I’m struck by the way in which Evan Parker would employ additional instruments other than tenor or soprano – in some cases he’s credited on ‘amplified autoharp’ for instance – and you also had Hugh Davies with his live electronics and invented instruments, and Jamie Muir with his garbage percussion. Whereas today when you and Evan play you stick to your instruments and play in a fairly matter of fact way– you just get on with it.
In a way you’re talking about the ‘kind of noise it makes’ and there seem to be a lot of people who are beginning to be captivated by that aspect of things and who also seem to have a different approach to the whole thing. I think for us earlier on, the search for new sounds was part of it, but the nub was to find material that could prove useful to improvising. If you like; to find an essence or core to a way of playing music. I did try various things with the electric guitar ( preparations, feedback etc. and always trying to avoid the ‘ I’ve got a new device mentality ) but I quite consciously moved to the acoustic instrument to get closer to what being a guitarist meant. I’m still trying to do that. Incidentally I loved playing with Hugh Davies and still miss him. His understanding of the details and bigger musical picture was huge and he was very aware of the inherent properties of an instrument i.e not just it’s sonic possibilities but how to play it and hence make music.
Focussing in a bit, I thought we could talk about your approach to the guitar. Given his importance in free guitar playing – and free music in general – was Derek Bailey a significant influence? And if so, how did you go about negotiating between that influence and your own personal style?
Well, just before I moved to London I had weekly lessons from him for about a year. It was all about conventional playing and was very useful. In improvisation I’d been doing almost aleotoric things and using gestures a lot on the instrument, and I learnt how to map out the territory of what was being thrown up. I like very much the idea of ‘the whole instrument’ so I found his use of harmonics, ignoring or placing different emphases on the octave, the controlled ambiguity and particular colour of note clusters were all useful to me. Years later he used to come over to my place each week and I’d cook some food and we’d improvise duos. After that I thought I’d kind of drop out from his circle for a while as I wanted to work on my own. A few years after that I heard him playing some of my ‘licks’. I’m not saying he was influenced by what I was doing, just that if you are in the same area and on the same instrument there is always going to be a parallel development. In other musics, most people can’t tell the difference between Barney Kessell and Joe Pass, John Williams and Julian Bream or Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page. I don’t think Derek set out to ‘redefine the instrument’ he was just doing what we all do. Trying to find something to play.
One thing which particularly strikes me about your playing is the use of repetition and riffbased material – not in quite the same way as the near-minimalism of Evan Parker’s solo saxophone improvisations, nor in as obviously a referential manner as the wording of the question suggests, but marked nonetheless. Is this something that you’re particularly conscious of?
I’m quite aware of the use of repetition and of setting up fields of material within an improvisation. I also refer back to things that have happened before but this is all a consequence of following a musical imperative. Another point is that the instrument has very little sustain and the timbral range is also fairly limited so whereas someone on a different instrument might employ sustain and a shifting texture I have to work that much harder. The, if you like, ‘melodic’ or ‘lead’ part is in there, but I often disguise this by changing reference points, so it can seem like it’s just a bunch of notes to some people.
Maybe we could now talk about some specific recordings. Your second appearance on vinyl was a split-album with Richard Coldman, released on Incus Records in 1978. (John Russell – ‘Home Cooking’/ Richard Coldman – ‘Guitar Solos’ (Incus 31)). Perhaps you could tell us a bit about your own recordings from this release (which it appears were made in your bedroom, given the track titles), and also enlighten us a little on Richard Coldman, who seems to have kept a fairly low profile since.
Well that was recorded when I think I was closest to what Derek was doing and had fairly recently switched to acoustic guitar. The engineer Bob Woolford went down to my grandmother’s place in the sticks and he set up a Stellavox reel to reel machine, I sat in front of the microphone and he recorded it. It was originally supposed to be a duo recording with Roger Smith but he said he didn’t want to play with me any more and wanted to play with Steve Beresford. We all tried to get him to do a solo; hence the design with two independent sides. Incus ( at the time Evan and Derek ) said they wanted a guitar record, so they asked Richard who is now a film maker and living in Poland.
At some point in the late 70s/early 80s, there seems to have been a little bit of a confluence between the work of the British free improvisers and players from the Japanese scene: I’m thinking of the album ‘Aida’s Call’, featuring Derek Bailey with Kaoru Abe, Motoharu Yoshiwaza, and trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, and the album ‘Artless Sky’, recorded in 1979 and featuring yourself and Roger Turner alongside Kondo, once more. Perhaps you could talk about the experience of playing with Kondo, and, in more general terms, about this British/Japanese exchange of ideas.
Most of these players were on Company weeks; either playing or in the audience. Certainly that’s how I met and ended up playing with them. I played with Akio Suzuki, Motoharu Yoshizawa and Kondo through that route and played with Takehisha Kosugi later when he came over to work with Merce Cunningham and David Tudor. Roger Turner and I had been playing together a lot and we thought to add Kondo, make the record and get some gigs. Kondo was also working with Eugene Chadbourne and I knew him through Eugene as well. I’ve been to Japan a few times thanks to Sabu Toyozumi who was in from the start and a great musician. He has introduced me to a lot of players not known outside Japan and I’ve found many points of contact with what I do and there is a genuine interest in playing music together. I am on one CD called ‘Sangeraku’ and have played with the group (including a dancer and calligrapher) a couple of times, which was a real pleasure. I’d love to play with them outside Japan and did try to get something in Canada but it fell through. Maybe if someone is reading this and wants to help me bring them over they could get in touch?
The foundation of Quaqua in 1981 seems to have some parallels with what Derek Bailey was doing with Company. What was the impetus behind this – do you think it was similar to that which motivated Bailey?
Derek told me he got the idea for Company from the way the musicians on ‘Teatime’ were working, in that we used to change the permutations each time. I’ve always done that as I think that there are at least four areas that influence how the music works. Playing solo, regular long term groups, groups that are together for a specific time for a particular project and one off meetings. In fact the first ever Company concert was Derek with Garry Todd and Barry Guy and Dave Solomon and I joined them for the last set.
In 1989 you appeared on the album ‘News from the Shed’ with John Butcher, Phil Durrant, Paul Lovens and Radu Malfatti, and, a couple of years before, you’d set up Acta Records with Butcher and Durrant. I wonder if you could talk about your relation to this quieter, more texturally-based improv, which seems to have marked out a new direction of some sort in comparison to what had gone before: coming less from free jazz and more from avant-garde classical, perhaps.
By then I was playing acoustic guitar and with no amplification, as I hadn’t found a way of satisfactorily amplifying the instrument, so it was naturally quiet. Phil Durrant and I had spent a couple of years playing each week with Mark Pickworth on saxophone ( part of my philosophy of seeing what happens in a regular long term group ) and when Mark left we asked John Butcher to join us. I’d been doing some things with Gunter Christmann’s Vario groups and was very impressed ( I still am! ) with the way he directed things. For instance at the end of the concert he would ask the group to play four or five short pieces with no real development of the material and to try and make each piece contrasting. We later used this with Chris Burn’s Ensemble. I’d also suggest things in terms of material. We then made ‘Conceits’ and set up Acta to release it. Anyway we thought we’d extend the personnel and I wanted Paul Lovens and to have a different colour a brass player so that was Radu. We made the record and did a short tour under the name ‘Quaqua’ rather than have yet another list of names and the album title ‘News from the Shed’ ( which came from Lovens ) became the group’s name by default. There was never a conscious decision to take a different musical direction or start a school. It just came about from letting the music come first. I think that if people want to turn things into movements, directions etc. that comes later and is for them. I personally don’t find that productive.
I’d like to move on now to consider the role of ‘form’ and ‘structure’ in free improvisation. In a free improvising context, as you suggest in your article ‘Somewhere there?s Music’ (Rubberneck magazine, 1993 – available online), these develop spontaneously from the situation in which the improviser finds themselves (you use the term ‘filters’ rather than ‘form’ or ‘structure’). I wondered what your thoughts on this improvisational process were; though, as you say, improvisation perhaps uniquely offers moments in which “the whole architecture crumbles, leaving nothing at all as a reference point”, the rest of the time, something different might be going on. I’m not sure it?s a question that’s addressed that much, and it seems to me to have something to do with the way the brain organizes information and the way in which structures assert themselves – not rigidly, killing development or spontaneous growth – but organically and irresistibly. Has this been your experience in playing the music?
Well, I guess, there’s a number of things going on here. The nature of particular instruments, the immediate and broader cultural surroundings and the musicians themselves, all have a bearing on what happens to form and structure. There has been some research using MRI scans to suggest that some areas of the brain switch off and others, that deal with strategy, turn on and are more developed in improvisers. I think perception shapes concepts and in turn our concepts shape our perceptions, so for me theimportant thing is to try to ‘open up’ to what is going on. An athlete might call this ‘getting inthe zone’. I do have moments of abstract thought away from the instrument and the general day to day mundanities, that I believe are a necessary part of being a musician. This might sound a little strange but I’m sure daydreaming is good for you (Ha Ha ) have a look at GK Chesterton’s essay on idleness which I remember as being quite fun.
Returning to the question of lineage, there would appear to be quite a difference between guitarists coming to this music from experimental rock – let’s say, Henry Kaiser or Thurston Moore – and those who had concentrated on free playing from earlier on. I wondered about your own encounters with such players, what particular approaches you think they bring that might differ from your own, what particular tensions might be created by this, and also what sort of common ground you’ve found.
The guitar is a great instrument and one of the things that makes it a great instrument is it’s mongrel ancestry. It has travelled all over the world and is employed in so many musical styles that to definitively take an overview on how the guitar is played is practically impossible. I can only talk about my own approach and I would say that I’ve looked at it from Nick Lucas through Eddie Lang up to the present day and, although there are far more resources available to the student, many of them aren’t comprehensive enough, preferring to concentrate on specific areas at the expense of others. It’s again an, ‘I like that sound. How do I play it?’ kind of thing, and while not un-useful, as an improviser I feel one needs to find a bigger view than that. For instance George van Eps book on guitar harmony works on all the possible sets of string combinations and although it deals with diatonic harmony can be adapted for any other system of tonal organisation. I don’t know Thurston’s music which is a sad gap in my knowledge but I do know Henry and in fact I’m hoping to have a duo recording I did with him released, on a compilation of me playing in duos with other string players, later this year. Doing it was great fun, Henry is a real guitar enthusiast and a fine player. It was the first time we had played together in about thirty years!
One of your principal areas of activity since the early 1990s has been Mopomoso, the live concert series you founded with Chris Burn. Perhaps you could talk about the importance of this for you.
Since about 1973, when I started organising concerts, it has always been an important part of my musical life. There have been times when there were very few opportunities to play and the only way possible to perform was to put something together yourself. When I started Mopomoso it was not such a good time so I approached Chris and asked him if he’d like to help. Since then there have been an unbroken chain of monthly concerts plus a number of special events and workshops. Thanks to Tim Fletcher we have an audioarchive going back at least ten years and with Helen Petts, a video collection going back over a year. Other people like Chris Cooper, Martin Davidson and Paul Martin have also recorded concerts for us and I hope one day we can make this available. It is a big job. Of these records there are about 11 CDs released that were all or part recorded live at Mopomoso concerts and Helen Petts has uploaded a whole heap of films onto Youtube. In terms of programming I try to use a broad brush and not be stylistic, with the only stipulation being that the music is, or has a bearing on, free improvisation. I also try to take into consideration what is happening locally, regionally, nationally and internationally, and also to give lesser established musicians a spot alongside the established players. I get a lot of help for this and apart from the above George Coote who runs the box office, and Will Connors who does the sound, deserve honourable mentions. Oh..And I get to play once a month!
You perform in a number of regular improvising groupings, such as your duo with Henry Lowther, and your trio with Evan Parker and John Edwards. By contrast, Mopomoso pits you in with lots of new combinations and ad-hoc groupings, it seems; perhaps you could talk a bit about the advantages and disadvantages of playing in a regular group, and in first-time encounters.
I said earlier that I find both things valuable as they present different challenges. It is interesting to see how a particular group’s language develops and to take part in that and, playing in new permutations, means that you have no  preconceptions. To some extent it is really the same thing though. I’m just trying to find something to play that is appropriate and I try to bring my complete abilities with me and keep an open mind.
And, similarly, what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of playing solo, as opposed to in a group?
Every musician plays solo but not all of them do it in public. I feel it is an important thing to do not least because of the nakedness of the experience and the directness with an audience. It also allows me to approach the material differently in that if something takes my fancy I can work with that without having to worry about the music going in another direction. In answer to this and the previous question I don’t find any disadvantages really. I love improvising in all the different possibilities. It is what it is and I haven’t found a better way to get close to music and playing the guitar.
Elsewhere, you’ve mentioned your interest in cross-disciplinary work: collaborations with poets, theatre and performance art. Sometimes it seems to me that this side of things gets rather neglected. Why do you think this might be, and what do you find particular exciting about this sort of work?
I think other disciplines have other priorities. I was doing a guitar concerto for the Dutch composer Gilius van Bergeijk and he told me of an actor who said he really liked the way Gilius brushed some sweat off his forehead while playing the piano. For him it was something that arose from playing but the actor saw it as a theatrical gesture! Working with words is interesting because it’s another part of the brain and the counterpoint with music can create a different stimulus. Some areas of Performance art emphasise the physical, behavioural and visceral and in the visual arts a whole new juxtaposition arises. It’s about how we are in the world and where the boundaries are with music. I feel it’s good to look at and experience these things but it is always important to understand the differences between disciplines.
(copyright David Grundy 2009)

John Russell Guitarist 2
John Russell got hold of his first guitar in 1965 and began playing in and around London from 1971… ” Apart from his solo career, this guitarist has been playing with John Butcher, Phil Durrant, Stefan Keune, Roger Turner, Phil Minton, Gina Southgate, Hugh Davies, Luc Houtkamp, John Edwards, Mark Sanders, the Chris Burn Ensemble, and above all he’s been collaborating many times with mighty Evan Parker. Many consider Russell one of the last living legends coming out of the English improvisational scene and for those of you who never heard his style, I think one of the best definitions I can quote is that of a reviewer 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 running concert series featuring mainly improvised music. His releases have been put out by labels such as Incus, Emanem and Inaudible… I think his credentials speak for themselves, but what surprised me the most is how this man has been able to remain down to earth regardless of his incredible work. I don’t know if he got the attention he really deserved, but I’ve no doubt that speaking of Russell in terms of “best kept secret” would be too restrictive and above all while reading you can’t but notice the sharp intellect of this musician.
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?
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.
And when/how did you get hooked by the free-improvisational thing?
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.
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 historical perspective of music”?
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.
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?
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.
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…
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 withno 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.
“…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?
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 influenceafter 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 inthe 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.
Some urban legends around Mr. Russell mark him as an “uncompromisingplayer”, 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?
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 willful ignorance of ‘the powers that be’ all keep the need to work for this music as important now as it was then.
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?
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?
(copyright Andrea Ferraris 2008)