John Russell

Emanem 5037

By Ken Waxman

As the musicians of the so-called second generation of British improvisers move into their seventh decade, many celebratory concerts are marking their undiminished skills. One of the best, preserved on this 78-minute disc, took place last December as 60th birthday boy guitarist John Russell playing four sets with six improvisers. The result confirms the adage that Free Music keeps you young.

Measuring all four, the two shorter meetings are like extended bagatelles. On “The Second Half of the First Half” Russell matches wits with his contemporary, sound-singer Phi Minton, who has never found a noise he couldn’t duplicate. As Minton bellows, burbles, moans, whistles and hiccups, the guitarist’s folksy picking is perfect accompaniment for a bawdy verbal Punch & Judy show with the singer taking all the parts. “The Second Half of the Second Half” signals a rare return to the electric guitar for Russell to battle the psyched out, dial-twisting distortions from Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore. Propelling electronic shrieks, flanges and trebly rebounds likely not heard since Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck worked together, Russell rocks out while keeping the duet chromatic and with unexpected aleatory highlights.

True sonic sustenance comes with the extended trios. “The First Half of the First Half” unites three separate musical strands into congenial whole cloth. Trading licks with trumpeter Henry Lowther’s muted puffs as if the two are Art Farmer and Jim Hall in a Cool Jazz situation, Russell also plinks wide linear accents which lock in with the studied sweeps of violinist Satoko Fukuda expressing her classical training. Staccato stopping on the guitarist’s part knit the loose ends so the garment has no holes. Even more impressive is “The First Half of the Second Half”, where the trio is filled out by a younger – bassist John Edwards – and an older – tenor saxophonist Evan Parker – free music lifer like himself. With the bassist digging a foundation scooping darker tones from within his wooden instrument, Russell uses resonating flanges and slurred fingering to build a modernist edifice, upon which Parker’s architecturally inventive vibrations provide the decorative detailing. With confirms Russell’s – and free improv’s – adaptability, foretelling many more creative years for both.

—For The Whole Note October 2015