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John Russell (1954 - 2021) - An Appreciation by Alex Ward and Stephen Vitkovitch

by Ian Mann

January 21, 2021

Musician Alex Ward and record label owner Stephen Vitkovitch have written a tribute to their friend, guitarist, improviser and organiser John Russell, who sadly passed away on January 18th 2021.

Stephen Vitkovitch writes;

Alex Ward (the clarinettist and guitarist) and I have written the below about John Russell, who we both lived near in Walthamstow. Others have covered the spectrum of work elsewhere, but we think this helps get to the man, our friend.

(John Russell, 1954-2021)


John Russell was the model of someone whose own artistry went hand in hand with their advocacy for a whole community and area of activity. He was fiercely and passionately committed to free improvisation, and determined for it not to be overshadowed or diluted by more popular or fashionable styles of music - but whilst he had a purist’s devotion to the method (namely, musicians getting together to find common ground in the moment of playing, rather than through predetermination), his vision of what it could encompass as a music was as wide and pluralistic as could be. He was always on the lookout for interesting musicians from any area of music who might have the openness to bring their own practice into the arena of freely improvised performance, and his determination to foster and promote new generations of improvising musicians was second to none. To these ends he worked tirelessly as an organiser with the Mopomoso concert series and workshops and his annual Fete Quaqua festival - but in many ways it was through his own guitar playing that he did the most to facilitate the musical utopia he envisaged. Every note he played radiated curiosity, joy and the desire to learn about his performing partners by bringing his whole musical self to engage with them, and playing with him was a genuinely transformative experience.

His desire to bring free improvisation to a wider group of people remained strong even, or perhaps especially in the face of ill health. Discovery Festival, staged and curated by John in 2017 in Walthamstow where he lived brought together 60 musicians from a host of countries together for one electrifying and inspiring day, and he was determined to build on that this year - not to be stopped by “this damn virus”. He continued to run and contribute to the Mopomoso series virtually under lockdown - although his ambition for a weekend festival, which he had begun planning, was sadly unachievable under restrictions. His Weekertoft label, run with Paul G. Smyth, is a treasure trove of recordings to dip into. Generous with his time, his music, and with the coffee when making a cafetiere. He is survived by his wife Joanna.

Alex Ward and Stephen Vitkovitch

Photograph of John Russell at Walthamstow Jazz Festival 2019 kindly supplied by Stephen Vitkovitch

Stephen Vitkovitch
Byrd Out Limited

Ian adds;

I was sorry to hear of John’s passing, although, unfortunately, I never actually got to see him play.
My thanks to Stephen for getting in touch with me and I feel honoured to be able to host this heartfelt tribute on the Jazzmann.

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