December 5, 2007
John Russell/Jean Demey/Jean-Michael Van Schouwburg
The Mercelis Concert
Inaudible 006 CD
A fixture on the London Free Music scene since the early 1970s, guitarist John Russell has never had the same high profile as some other improvising guitarists, despite his association with the long-running Mopomoso concert series and partnership, with, among others, saxophonist John Butcher and pianist Chris Burn.
Part of the reason for this can be heard on these two collaborative CDs. Although mostly a series of duos and trio – with one nonet showcase – Russell’s sharp, metallic styling frequently seems to recede into the background. No matter whether he’s matched with an instrumentalist or a sound-singer, and despite how well the guitarist plays, the overall impression is that he’s accompanying the other performer(s).
This situation is in clearest focus on The Mercelis Concert, a whimsically-packaged CD that comes with a distinctive, cartoon-like cover and a disc that resembles an old LP. Except for one trio track which adds Belgium bassist Jean Demey – who also and separately has his own impressive solo feature on another track – this mostly Brussels-recorded material finds Russell’s contribution nearly buried beneath the verbal and gullet gymnastics of Waterloo-based vocal improviser Jean-Michael Schouwburg.
A dramatic performer in the Phil Minton extended-vocal-tradition, of what he terms phonési, Van Schouwburg – who is also the administrator of the Belgian Inaudible Collective – attracts the aural spotlight as effortlessly as a starlet does paparazzi’ cameras. Here he unleashes a distinctive array of throat, mouth and tonsil intonation that encompasses guttural murmuring, duck-like quacks, extended nattering, Satchmo-style growls, saliva-filled expositions, Bedlam-like mumbles and vibrating warbles.
Russell responds with crossbow-like pulls on his strings, rasps beneath the guitar’s bridge and abrasive extended slides. Nevertheless, even when Demey is on hand to provide some additional rhythmic bass lines on “The Mercelis Trio”, the focus remains on the singer’s mumbles, retches and theatricalism. As examples of Ur-improvisation, the CD can’t be faulted – but it’s Van Schouwburg’s show all the way.
Instructively Van Schouwburg shares the stage with eight other improvisers – including Nicole Legros, another vocalist – on “So It Goes”, the more-than-24-minute group free improv on Analekta – and doesn’t yield an inch. Although Russell is more assertive – or at least louder – here, despite his sliding fret action and tough rasgueado, attention is still drawn towards the male singer. Apparently energized by the fast company, Van Schouwburg introduces a new repertoire of Count Dracula-style cackles, banshee-like shrieks and deep breathing caws. Together with Legros, the singers unite to keen, daven and sputter nonsense syllables. On her own, Legros introduces Tuvan-styled falsetto squeals as well.
On the instrumental side, German alto saxophonist Stefan Keune makes his claim on the proceedings with smeared split tones, snorting trills and peeps, while harmonized, nearly legato arco swipes from violinist Philipp Wachsmann and what sounds like swizzle stick and glass tube percussion from Javier Carmona impress as well. Eventually, however, the guitarist help define the track’s resolution as he steadily strums a bass line over which the vocalists reach a sort of faux harmony and Wachsmann unleashes a series of arpeggios that burlesque the legit tradition while wrapping up the piece.
Elsewhere on Analekta, the guitarist’s individual duets seem of a piece. Facing trumpeter Henry Lowther or tenor saxophonist Garry Todd, Russell showcases curiously flattish strokes and different, tougher fingering systems. Although Lowther, usually an orthodox jazz trumpeter, tries out unique note patterns accelerating to a full-bore buzz; and the little-recorded reedist relies on pulsating tongue-slaps and irregular trilling, again the guitarist subsumes himself into the improvisations rather than staking out a particular musical identity.
Overall it appears that the duet with soprano saxophonist/percussionist Chefa Alonso is the most pleasing interaction. With Russell strumming powerfully as if he’s piloting a 1930s dance band, echoing concussive rattles and pops from wood blocks, glass tubes and squeaky toys are her response. Finally genuine rapprochement seems to be made – with each duo member an equal partner. Russell’s interpolations range from delicate finger-style expositions featuring ethereal chords and pings which make a virtue out of miniscule gestures, to thick hammering on the strings. Able to divide her musical rejoinders, Alonso swirls and snakes out double-tongued flutters from her saxophone or rings bells and vibrates her percussion kit.
A guitarist with a unique method of working, Russell is best celebrated as a contributor to the overall sound picture, not an upfront soloist.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Analekta: 1. The Bite 2. Blart 3. Chamarileros 4. So It Goes
Personal: Analekta: John Russell (guitar); with Henry Lowther (trumpet ([track 2]); Chefa Alonso (soprano saxophone and percussion ([track 3]); Garry Todd (tenor saxophone [track 1]); and [track 4]: Stefan Keune (alto saxophone); Philipp Wachsmann (violin and electronics); Ashley Wales (piano); Ivor Kallin (bass and preparations); Javier Carmon (percussion); Steve Beresford (electronics and objects) and Nicole Legros and Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg (voices)
Track Listing: Mercelis; 1. Light Stagin’ 2. The First One 3. The Mercelis Trio 4. The 50th Birthday Party 5. Zen Garden Gift
Personal: Mercelis: John Russell (guitar); Jean Demey (bass) and Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg (voice)