Thursday, July 27, 2017

Max Johnson's "In the West"

Part of a new generation of composing improvisers, Max Johnson is a young bassist who's made quite a splash since hitting the New York jazz scene not quite a decade ago, working with eminences from Abrams to Zorn and recording half a dozen albums as leader. His discography includes an album with the cooperative trio Big Eyed Rabbit, on which Johnson melds improvised music with his other great enthusiasm: bluegrass. (And this from a guy who grew up in New Jersey.) Beyond that, he has three discs (so far) at the helm of his regular trio with trumpeter Kirk Knufke and drummer Ziv Ravitz, and one (The Prisoner) with a quartet that includes saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, violist Mat Maneri, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara.

On In the West, released by the estimable Portuguese label Clean Feed, Johnson leads another quartet, this one including Susan Alcorn -- usually a solo performer, most recently heard on Mary Halvorson's octet date Away From You -- on pedal steel guitar, but it's hardly a Western swing session. Alcorn's molten-silver sound introduces atonal elements to the sonic stew, her swooping glisses recalling Harry Partch's just-intoned instruments.

The opening "Ten Hands" starts out with Johnson and drummer Mike Pride laying down a loping groove, reminiscent of Dave Holland and Jack Dejohnette's early ECM pairings, over which pianist Kris Davis can expound, expand, and elaborate freely, before careening into more impressionistic territory. "Greenwood" opens with a few scattered notes, surrounded by negative space, before Davis introduces the meandering theme. The other instruments join and gradually build to a masterful tension as Davis repeatedly hammers on a single key while Alcorn sprays clouds of notes around her and Pride raises a staccato clatter, the chordal instruments gradually building harmonic density before subsiding back into silence.

"Great Big Fat Person" is the most developed of Johnson's compositions here, wending its way through several contrasting moods. It starts out with a lengthy exposition by Davis, with comments from Alcorn that shimmer like reflections of light in running water. Some hammered chords from Davis send the flow in a different direction, with Alcorn playing sinuous ascending lines. As the piece decelerates, the leader does some of his most expressive playing. Johnson's spacious arrangement of Ennio Morricone's "Once Upon a Time in the West" is an extended and leisurely examination of the theme's melodic and harmonic contours, with plenty of room for the quartet's most spirited interactions. There's much to beguile the ear here, and Max Johnson's a talent to watch.


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