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John Russell 1954-2021

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

Dominic Lash: https://forceofcircumstance.blogspot.com/2021/01/a-trick-of-wiring-for-john-russell-1954.html

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.

Mopomoso is the project that John was to dedicate the rest of his life to.  These improvised music concerts took place on the third Sunday of each month and John made it his mission to keep them going, often in the face of public incomprehension and indifference.  We recognise improvised music as an art form now, but in those days it was still in its infancy and unappreciated.  It was not uncommon to go into the Red Rose and recognise not only every musician, but every other member of the audience as well.  Yet a list of the musicians who were involved would provide quite some wish list for any improv fan.   As  well as John, regulars included: John Butcher, Phil Durrant, Chris Burn, Lol Coxhill, Paul Rutherford, Phil Minton, Veryan Weston, Roger Turner…. the list goes on.  There were no compromises with commerciality of course – the music could often be austere, sometimes uproarious, occasionally impenetrable, yet hardly ever uninteresting.
And a special mention has to be made of the Mopomoso Christmas parties.  John was like a big kid when it came to Christmas and these were occasions that drew in musicians and fans from all over the country and turned the events into mini improv festivals, with copious amounts of beer being drunk.  They became one of the big occasions of the year.
It nearly broke John’s heart when the manager of the Red Rose suddenly did a runner and the venue closed down at short notice.  He even tried to buy the place.  By this time we had become friends and I used to give him a hand on Mopomoso nights, setting up the room and running the door.   I was also a night Manager at the Vortex which had opened a few months earlier and was interested in attracting local music projects.  Consequently in January 2008 we were able to transfer Mopomoso to the Vortex without missing so much as a month – much to John’s satisfaction.
That’s not to say the transfer was entirely problem free.  The Vortex is a lot smaller than the Red Rose and this caused some restrictions, and setting up the events became quite challenging.  This was particularly true of the annual Fete Qua Qua – a 3 day event involving about 15 musicians from different parts of the world that was not dissimilar to John’s mentor, Derek Bailey’s Company Week.   And of course the Christmas parties could never be the same – although we gave it a good try!
Needless to say John adapted and came to treasure the Vortex and we him.  Mopomoso was never going to be a huge money-making project (particularly because if John even half knew an audience member he’d put them on the guest list!) but it provided the club with an edge.  Also John was always more appreciated abroad than in this country, particularly in the Far East, and he brought over many musicians that we would never have seen any other way.  We can only hope that not all of these links have been lost with his passing.
And nearly everything was filmed.  Mopomoso has even kept going through the pandemic with youtube presentations on the third Sunday of each month.  I do hope that John was awake last Sunday to see that the viewer totals continue to grow.
As for me, I’ll miss the interminable phone calls.  John could talk for hours about all manner of things from crosswords to Hancock’s Half Hour to his hatred of Tories and Brexit.  And the jokes.  John loved a good joke – often the filthier the better.   It’s not just the music I’ll miss.  There’s also the times we were just falling about laughing.

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

John Russell will be greatly missed in the free improvisation community and beyond. Having shared about his health earlier last year, news of his passing was perhaps to be expected, but nevertheless such news is still a sad shock to receive.  
John was such a creative force, a precious, profound pioneer. He was as special and as unique as the music he performed and passionately shared with the world. I remember, in my teens, coming across John’s great Mopomoso (MOdern, POst MOdern, So?!) archive on YouTube for the first time and discovering so many vibrant, invigorating musicians. John’s music played a big part in opening me up to really exploring the moment creatively, an aliveness, a way of just being, a strong sense of freedom and I HAD to get involved! Watching folks from all over the world freely improvising at The Vortex was so inspiring. It was particularly refreshing for me to see women players – role models to me as a young musician just starting out. Indeed, John was very conscious of diversity, which is clear from the legacy he leaves behind.

 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.

Let’s keep spreading the word about free improvisation!
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