Russ Johnson: Working on the Tightrope
AAJ: Well, then you might as well just have a drum machine or backing tracks.
RJ: Yeah, sure. That's why I don't know how rhythm section players deal with playing jam sessions when there's, you know, forty guys up there playing way too many choruses. But the point is, I like to think that everybody in this band had equal say in what happens, in the direction. And there are certain things that happen relatively consistently when we play. But there's other times where the tunes sound completely different just because somebody's got an idea. One of the reasons I chose those guys is that trust thing; if they want to take it somewhere, I'm willing to go along for the ridewherever they want to go.
AAJ: There's a lot of space in these songs on this record. I like how you're willing to not just slow down a piece, but bring it to a real halt. That takes some courage, since some listeners get confused or nervous if the tempo's not just rolling along. The most obvious example is "Saguache, which starts out with that easy groove before the solos beginbut you keep interrupting it with that Cootie Williams-ish plunger-mute trumpet phrase. It's really playful. The album's got lots of moments where the time goes from unstated pulse to no time at all, just space. Why do you like to do this?
RJ: For me it's all about flow, and you can achieve flow with having steady pulseno doubt. And the greatest players make that flow happen all the time. In this band, this project, I wanted that same flow, but I wanted the flow to be lasting. If you're speaking in conversation, there are times where the conversation speeds up, and times where the conversation slows down. Naturally, the rhythms when we speak, or when we do anythingwe don't work at the exact same pace all the time. So with this, it was a question of creating some of those spots. In "Rapid Comfort as well, there's a totally unrelated time section. In that particular one, I wanted a stark contrast between the two figures, the two main sections. As far as "Saguache when I wrote the tune, I was on a solo backpacking trip in Colorado. I was camped at 10,000 feet; I actually had my horn. And I was looking over this valley, and I was specifically thinking of Kermit. He's from Nebraska, and whatever that Midwest thing is [Johnson is originally from Wisconsin], I can kind of feel it, I can hear itthe wide-open spaces thing. And so when I wrote it, I wrote the two sections, and I originally wrote them in time. But it just didn't feel like it breathed the way I wanted it to. So I decided to play rubato in that second sectionand it's different pretty much every time we play it, too; it's never the exact same tempo. But I was just trying to get, basically, a flow thing.
AAJ: You're going for a more organic flow that resembles our human metabolisms. The organic tempo
RJ: Of life! Definitely. And that's one of my favorite things on the record, actually; that's why I put it first.
AAJ: I love the solo parts on "Saguache, too. You and O'Gallagher play pretty contrapuntally at times there, and when you're playing those parts, somehow it seems to turn the beat upside down. I'm not familiar with O'Gallagher's work. Have you played with him much?
RJ: He's my oldest friend. I went to Berklee for one year in the mid-eighties, and I met Johnalong with a million other great players. But he and I had a hookup; we met our first day there and we've now known each other for twenty years. He was the best man at my wedding. We have a thing. I mean, there are a few players, like Ohad Talmor from the Other Quarteta few players you meet where you just have that hookup, and with John, it's incredible: no matter what we're doing, there's absolutely no thought that goes into it as far as intonation or phrasing or anything like that. We just happen to breathe in the same spot, and to attack notes and hear phrasing in the same way. And as far as the counterpoint part of it, that comes from being a good listener. When you're playing music that's as open as this is, if you're not intently listeningif you're worried about what you're playing rather whan what everybody's playing, it will die a very quick death! [laughing] And with John, he has the ability to play as many notes as anybody, ever, but he's really pared down his thing in this way and his listening is so strong. But there are times where we totally go for counterpoint. It's unstated counterpoint, obviously, but one of us will be playing long phrases and the other'll be playing short phrases. Or one of us will be ascending and the other will be descending. And there are times where we find that musical rub we're looking for and hang on to thathe's just an incredible musician. Great, great listener. He's my oldest musical associate and there's a lot of history there.