Oliver Weindling pays tribute to John Russell
For more than a decade, John Russell’s Mopomoso have been stalwarts of the Vortex. Curated on shoestring (as he frequently reminded one), every month he was able to bring a cohort of intriguing improvisers to the club. Not all were perhaps everyone’s cup of tea – but they were John’s. That’s what counted and that’s why we trusted his judgement.
Forced out of Red Rose Club on Seven Sisters Road in 2008, it was the indefatigable George Coote who brought Mopomoso to the Vortex. (MOdernism, POstmodernism, SO what!). And, on the third Sunday of every month, there they were. Apparently the move was almost ‘seamless’ – not a single month was lost.
A stalwart audience who were probably less imaginative than John. John himself always had the broadest taste in music: he showed that with some hilarious clips on his Facebook page. He was also a genius at getting the music videoed by Costas and Helen, and then starting the Weekertoft label with Paul G. Smyth. But somehow this imagination never always converted into the audiences that he deserved. But that’s because he was a musician’s musician. As to be seen by the Facebook postings and more about. And perhaps as a contrast to Phil Spector, another musical casualty this week, but with a more chequered story of course.
John was also always a generous man. Always happy to share – including his life. And it is particularly thrilling that, even when his cancer worsened and the pandemic has prevented our live Sunday afternoon gigs, he was able to mobilise his colleagues like Charlotte Keeffe and Paul Jolly to create Mopomoso TV sessions monthly online. With John in a colourful suit, it is free improv’s version of Saturday night variety. Making music that many may dismiss as hard accessible.
And then that’s not to mention his own guitar playing. Often almost skeletal and intense, he could become an off-kilter blues guitarist at any moment.
John, we’ll miss you.
A few tributes to read elsewhere
Evan Parker’s tribute on Londonjazznews: https://londonjazznews.com/2021/01/20/a-tribute-to-john-russell-1954-2021-by-evan-parker/
Daniel Spicer in Jazzwise: https://www.jazzwise.com/news/article/john-russell-19-12-54-18-01-21
Jean-Michel van Schouwburg tells John’s story up to 2011: https://orynx-improvandsounds.blogspot.com/2011/11/john-russell.html?fbclid=IwAR3bXcOxgC7nirDeL8lBfa6E1iiR-41PkHqw_dyTBdLx63N6chbOvUdhZck
Stephen Vitkovitch and Alex Ward: https://www.thejazzmann.com/features/article/john-russell-1954-2021-an-appreciation-by-alex-ward-and-stephen-vitkovitch
George Coote says farewell to a friend…
As these things often seem to go, it was not until one of my last conversations with my dear friend John Russell that we realised that I had attended his first public performance. This was at the Actual Music Festival held at the ICA in 1980. The event had been organised by his flatmate Anthony Wood (who was later to found “The Wire” magazine). I saw him a few more times over the next few years – notably at subsequent Actuals of course, but it wasn’t until I moved to Hackney in the late 1980’s and found Mopomoso at the Red Rose Club that he started to make a real impression on me.
Dick Pole on John Russell
The third Sunday of the month was for me as a Vortex volunteer one of the key dates of the club’s calendar. This was Mopomoso day, curated and hosted by the inspirational John Russell whose enthusiasm, dedication to and understanding of improvised music was recognised and greatly appreciated not only by the musicians who played there but also by the dedicated team who assisted and the regulars in the audience who turned up the enjoy the sessions.
John’s generosity was such that on occasions his guest list was greater then the paying audience but this never deterred him as he would welcome one and all even when his health was sadly fading.
Between sets and before he closed the show he would often recollect anecdotes from way back but the story I remember most (he did refer to it frequently) was his quote from Chris McGregor that the most important instrument was the drum – the ear drum. John was certainly a dedicated listener and just really loved not only Mopomoso but its offshoots, workshops and all. He will be sadly missed by all of us but I’ve no doubt that Mopomoso will continue in some form or other and John’s immense contribution to improvised music and our memories of him will live on.
A tribute from Charlotte Keeffe
He was such a generous, connecting soul. In 2016, I reached out to John via email late one evening about getting involved in his free improvisation workshops. To my surprise he emailed straight back inviting me over for a play! After a few plays/meetings with John and some other folks at his cosy abode in Walthamstow, a Mopomoso Workshop Group was formed. The Workshop Group met weekly at Troy 22 (bar). Underneath Troy 22, was a lovely, intimate Spanish bar, Sevilla Mia, and John quickly suggested that we (Workshop Group) put on a gig at this venue. Sure enough, for the best part of a year, we had a series of wonderful concerts. The Workshop Group invited established freely improvising musicians once a month to perform a set, and then perform with the Workshop Group – these were dream gigs!
With the Mopomoso Workshop Group bubbling away, John’s other (Mopomoso) plans were of course still continuing. It was an incredible honour to become part of the support behind his Mopomoso Sunday afternoon gigs at The Vortex, his famous Mopomoso Christmas Parties, his (August) Fête Quaqua festivals also held at The Vortex, his Iklectik Ballistik festival in December 2016 and his Discovery Festival in Walthamstow in September 2017. Fast forward to last year, despite John’s health and living in these pandemic times, he invited a team of folks to come together on Zoom and create Mopomoso TV. Please checkout John’s Mopomoso TV (https://tv.mopomoso.com/).
Seeing John looking and feeling so tired, hardly being able to hold himself upright during some of the Mopomoso TV Zoom calls towards the end of last year, was heartbreaking. This vivid image captures how much John remained so determined and passionate about free improvisation; making this music more accessible to the world.