Russ Johnson: Save Big
The title of Russ Johnson's Save Big is supposed to evoke the essence of the American phrase "Save Big! in a way that is direct and to the point. What it means here in this truly wonderful and important album is this is American music; not just that jazz is American in its core, but that this is American jazz.
This is not to say that the tunes or overall feel come from the black experience in America, not just because some of the tunes evoke Big Sky and the Marlboro Man riding off into the sunset; other tunes sound nothing like that. There is something, a very definite something, that just says outright, "I am free, I am direct, and I play this from my heart. Let me share this with you, and this music touched me deeply, but just cannot put my finger on exactly what it is.
In a recent review of the Vertigo Quintet, I described the music as "very European, which, though true, was less than obvious, and yet Save Big is as American as Vertigo is European. The two records, though sounding entirely different, share many qualities. Both have an earnest intensity, compositions with a sense of planned structure, much unison trumpet and sax (here alto, there soprano; is this a new trend?) and a rhythmic looseness. Both have a feeling of experimentation within a known set of rules, a feature central to art in general and jazz specifically. Their differences do much to explain the meanings of "American and "European. Vertigo feels more influenced by classical music in the way its structure plays out and its rhythms whichwhile definitely having that forward, horizontal jazz feelare much less connected to the jazz "tradition. Save Big swings hard much of the time, but in the modern, urban (New York City) way, and yet has many rhythmic shifts that pull it away from being "merely a jazz record that can be pigeonholed.
Anyway, much is made in the notes of Russ Johnson being born and raised in the "heartland and yet spending twenty years in New York City, and how this music reflects these differing parts of him. While that may be unquantifiable, all of the music has a very personal feel, that of Johnson speaking directly to the listener, saying "this is me, and that is also me. Technically, he is an amazing trumpeter with a very clear non-brassy timbre and gets many sounds that add richness to what he communicates, including the masterful use of mutes, growls without the mute, half-valving, and even managing to produce a harmonic sounding at the same time as the main note (talk about split lip!).
The supporting cast is extremely sympathetic and has taken Johnson's compositional desires to heart. John O'Gallagher is a standout, and he made a splash with his latest release, Line of Sight. He is simply on fire throughout the record, even when he is playing slowly, delivering every note with a riveting intensity and purpose. Driscoll and Ferber (on bass and drums, respectively) serve a more central role here than the same instruments do in Vertigo, since there is no piano to help rhythmically or harmonically. They are right on top of things, and while it is impossible to tell how much is notated or just cued, they shifts gears almost ahead of the soloists.
The Big Sky compositions include "Saguache (as in the county in Colorado, where sky meets mountains) and "Reveille (a Driscoll composition). The opening "Saguache sets the expectations for the record, and only later do you find out that Johnson delivers surprises. The music feels important in that it is telling a deep story or exposing a large truth, but at the same time it is easily accessible. "Reveille also tells a story, implying the old West with a subtle quote from the bugle wakeup call, and the melody slowly unfolds as the sun rises. Between these two is "Figuratively Speaking, an urban potboiler with many rhythmic shifts as Johnson and O'Gallagher take turns blazing away.
The center of the album is taken up with "Duo and "Indonesian Folk Song. These tunes' placement seems intentional in that the intensity is increased while using less instruments. The former features Johnson and Driscoll and is kind of free, but with audible development. Johnson produces many interesting extra-trumpet-mental sounds, including the harmonic. The latter is a transcription of a melody heard by O'Gallagher and features microtonal interference between trumpet and sax, combined with varying repetitions of the melody that holds the track together. Both are fascinating, if not standard, tracks.
The mirror side of the album contains two tunes ("Rapid Comfort and "The Loper ) with a more usual urban jazz sound, but again with many rhythmic shifts that keep things interesting and off balance. O'Gallagher again breathes fire whenever he takes a solo, spurring Johnson on. Johnson relates that O'Gallagher is one of his closest friends and that his current higher (deserved) profile has been fifteen years in the making. "Constantinople feels a bit too long, perhaps because of the static harmony, but Johnson manages to sound almost like a reed instrument and O'Gallagher like a double reed.
An extra unlisted track sums up the album and features Johnson on solo trumpet playing a tune that was written as a lullaby for his then unborn daughter. It sounds at times like the Western tune that has the words, "Oh don't forsake me oh my darlin', and perhaps he had an unconscious desire to tie up the Big Sky theme.
A beautiful, wide-ranging, thinking and feeling album, Save Big deserves some serious listening.
Visit Russ Johnson on the web.
Personnel: Russ Johnson: trumpet; John O'Gallagher: alto saxophone; Kermit Driscoll: bass; Mark Ferber: drums, percussion.
Track Listing: Saguache (6:51); Figuratively Speaking (6:57); Reveille (5:42); Duo (3:14); Indonesian Folk Song (5:04); Rapid Comfort (6:15); Constantinople (9:22); The Loper (9:57); Sympathetic Mildew (1:44); [Untitled] (1:07).