With (Emanem) documents an occasion of manifold celebrations: the 60th birthday, in December 2014, of guitarist John Russell, the concert held to celebrate the occasion, and Russell’s presence on the night, having been hospitalised for months with a serious heart condition. In January 2015 he would undergo a heart bypass operation, but in the interim he was cleared to play, and With testifies to the results.
Once a student of Derek Bailey, Russell has developed an equally inimitable playing style. Just as significantly, he continues to champion improvised music as an open and inclusive venture, in the same spirit of Bailey’s famous Company Weekends, with regular concerts under the Mopomoso and Fete Quaqua banners at which international of improv talents come together to explore new musical relationships.
It’s fitting, then, that With gives equal weight to each of the four sets played by Russell and guests at his birthday gig: a varied bill of fare such as you might encounter on any regular Mopomoso night, except that Russell features on every set: first in a trio with Henry Lowther (trumpet) and Satoko Fukada (violin), then a duo with vocalist Phil Minton, a trio with Evan Parker (tenor saxophone) and John Edwards (double bass), and a concluding electric guitar duet with Thurston Moore, ex Sonic Youth.
Conceits (Emanem), which dates from 1987, is a welcome reissue of Russell’s ninth album, the first by the trio of Russell, saxophonist John Butcher, and Phil Durrant on violin or trombone. It is one of the landmark recordings of improvised music, and had a huge impact on my own listening.
It’s hard, perhaps, to convey how beguilingly alien all-acoustic improvised music sounded at the tail end of the 80s. Against the then-current backdrop of ‘golden age’ hiphop, acid jazz and corporate rock, the music of Russell, Durrant and Butcher sounded bracingly spartan. This is music stripped to essentials, both sonically and conceptually.
Russell’s playing has a more finely-ground texture than Bailey’s slashing style, and his barbs are generally softer, although he can be effectively aggressive. He’s beautifully complimented, on Conceits, by Durrant. In other contexts, Durrant would pioneer the use of electronics. Here he plays, with a light touch but incisive analytical intelligence, only violin and occasional trombone. (It’s telling that all of the members of this trio were associated at one time or another with Chris Burn, whose work combined improvisation with arranged composition and conduction.)
Conceits, although improvisatory, is very much a considered, studio-crafted album, featuring eleven concise and distinctive pieces. None are more than six minutes long – far from the usual re-contextualisation of a lengthy concert performance. That side of things is covered by the inclusion on this expanded reissue of a 16 minute concert recording made by Mats Gustafsson in Stockhom in 1992, which wouldn’t be out of place on With.
The first set on the new album brings together two duos, Russell/Lowther and Russell/Fukada, to form a new trio. Russell is impeccably…well, not deferential, exactly, but sensitive to the low-key melodicism of his partners, both of whom approach improv from studied backgrounds. Russell recollects, as a teenager, hearing Lowther playing blues with John Mayall, and later with big band jazz ensembles, and the trumpeter’s playing still has a blues sensibility, just as Fukada often favours the emotive legato sound of ‘classical’ violin. The merging of the three distinctive instrumental voices has the subdued intensity of shared sensitivities, and real intimacy.
Phil Minton’s feral vocalisations draw Russell deep into abstraction, and test his ability to change attack and dynamics with alacrity. There’s a thespian quality to Minton’s performance and Russell, rather than falling into the relationship of accompanist or commentator, becomes an equally distinctive voice in a duologue, which seems irresistably Beckettian in humour.
The trio of Russell, Evan Parker and John Edwards has been convening irregularly for ten years or so now (I reviewed a concert at the Vortex in August 2012). Their 25 minute set, the longest here (Minton/Russell’s is the shortest at 13 minutes), immediately achieves the ideational density of tried-and-tested volatility, expertly leaving enough temporal slack for a brooding draw-down at the halfway mark, then a mutually provocative second act, and a beautifully ambiguous, mood-shifting endgame.
The last act before the presentation of a birthday cake was Russell’s duet with Thurston Moore, who has established himself as a regular at Cafe Oto over recent years (see my review of Moore’s co-headline show with Mats Gustafsson, plus guests John Russell and Pat Thomas, in September 2012).
I thought Moore and Russell’s duet was that earlier night’s highlight (“Moore’s almost casual aggression goaded Russell (on acoustic) into rebarbative picking and chaffing,” until Russell’s “innate musicality eventually softened Moore’s stance.”) This set is more nuanced than that suggests. Russell is heard here on electric, playing with a fuzz box and pedal effects. There’s no confusing the two, but Russell plays with surprising inhibition and Moore responds by playing tight and gnarly abstractions right off his pickups, producing the occasional fleeting doom metal allusion, and then slamming hard up against Russell’s feedback-emulating pedal work before both players ease off into a tense equilibrium, flirting with the elemental noise they’re both holding in check.
Conceits still sounds like something special to me, one of the few improv albums that breaks the general rule of thumb that ‘you probably had to be there’. And With works a similar trick, by dint of the variety and the high standards set across all four compact sets. Plus, of course, there’s its historical importance.
On With…: John Russell acoustic guitar (tracks 1, 2 & 3), electric guitar (4); Henry Lowther trumpet (1); Satoko Fukuda violin (1); Phil Minton voice (2); Evan Parker tenor saxophone (3); John Edwards double bass (3); Thurston Moore electric guitar (4).
On Conceits: John Russell acoustic guitar; Phil Durrant violin and trombone; John Butcher saxophones.
John Russell & Ståle Liavik Solberg – No Step.
Mats Gustafsson, John Russell, Raymond Strid – Birds.
Mats Gustafsson, Thurston Moore and Guests at Cafe Oto, 22 & 23 September 2012.
Fete Quaqua 2012 + Evan Parker, John Russell and John Edwards at the Vortex, 23 August 2012.