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Russ Johnson: Working on the Tightrope

By Published: August 22, 2005
AAJ: "Precise makes it sound precious, but it's definitely not music that can be played loose. In fact, I think almost all the songs could be played wrong in a way that would make them not work. For example, Kermit's song "Reveille —it's not your tune, but the group still has that sound and it completely gels. All the four parts feel autonomous but fused, working around an unspoken pulse. But to me, it's completely delicate—one overplayed note and the melody would collapse.

RJ: 100% correct. You're good [laughing]. That's why I chose that tune. I'd played that tune with Kermit and the saxophonist from the Other Quartet, Ohad Talmor. We used to do a weekly gig at the Knitting Factory back when that was in vogue. We'd all bring tunes in. Kermit's really got to get his own music out there; he's a really great composer.

AAJ: That's such a great tune.

RJ: It's a beautiful tune! That's why I chose to put in on the record. I had other music written of my own, but that tune just spoke to me in such a way. And you're absolutely right about overplaying. It's so subtle but it's subtle and complex at the same time. But if you don't approach it with that delicateness, it will fail pretty easily.

AAJ: Okay, "Indonesian Folk Tune. Speaking of unison parts, you do something on this one that's effective and just plain cool. On this arrangement of this folk song, you play unison parts with O'Gallagher, but they go very slightly away from each other in time—it gives the music a kind of blurring effect, puts it in and out of focus. Tell me about this.

RJ: Well, that was the only other tune here that I didn't compose. I played it with John on a couple of other projects. And what we were talking about before about having a thing with certain players: with John and I, our unisons are so—well, I feel they're really good and I usually beat myself up rather than compliment myself. With John, that stuff is so strong that when we got to this piece—most of the time, it's written almost an eighth-note apart, then it'll go into unison, then there'll be half-step rubs. I have to give credit to Frank Tafuri from OmniTone; he said it almost sounds like a Vietnamese oboe. And I think that was a pretty good call. Again, I'm really attracted to sound and texture, and that tune has a really unique texture. And I didn't want John and I to improvise on that tune at all; it's supposed to be a feature for Mark and Kermit. So the head is basically this palette; we're setting up this collection of colors for them to react to once we've finished stating that melody. But it's composed down to the nth degree. Texturally, it's so different—and it's all about the sonic experience, about what you're getting from the sounds of the instruments rather than the the notes that are being played. They're totally secondary.

AAJ: Okay, "Duo. This is just that, a duo between you and Kermit. Initially, I declared to myself that this was totally improvised, but the more I hear it the more I don't think this is true. Yet I'm not sure which parts are written and which are improvised. I thought that the first half was improvised, then around the second half you introduce a more specific, written theme. Or there are motifs throughout that are composed and you're improvising around those. So give it away; tell me.

RJ: Quite a bit of it's written, actually. I haven't heard it in a while. But you were right; the first half is improvised. But when we perform it live, we either play the written music first or second. We never state that written piece of music more than once, and once we're into the written part, we play that in its entirety. So it's one of those things that will change from gig to gig. I do a lot of completely improvised music. I'm doing a set tonight at [John] Zorn's new club with Mick Rossi.

AAJ: Yes, the New Math project. You beat me to a question. I was going to ask how much of that duo album New Math with Rossi was improvised.

RJ: Oh, it's all completely improvised. Nothing notated. So I really enjoy walking that tightrope. So with "Duo, Kermit—well, I hate to keep repeating myself but it comes down to being listeners and the reason you choose players for your band. Kermit is able to grasp exactly what I'm looking for and carry that over into the improvisation. In this case, it's before; it's the first half. But it's supposed to blur that line between written and improvised and Kermit is very, very adept at that.

AAJ: You're a technically great player, but there's a rigor and formality to your playing that makes everything sound composed, because it's never slapdash. You don't play a lot of licks and there's obviously a lot of thought going into what you're going to play. It holds together formally. In fact, a lot of it—"Duo in particular—has a real flavor of 20th century composed music.

RJ: I listen to that music and it's definitely what I am going for with that. The Other Quartet, I think, is also successful at blurring those lines between improvised and composed. But I try, on the contrary, to not be very thought-out. The not-playing-licks thing is conscious as well. I'm not saying I don't have my devices; we all do. We all have our own means of getting through music, but I've made a serious decision to not play standard licks. And as I was starting to talk about before, I like to live on that highwire where sometimes it will be incredible and sometimes you'll fall off and crash and burn. For me, artistically it's more satisfying when I'm on that tightrope. I'm willing to have it suck some nights and have it be magical other nights. If you're not playing over very strict chord patterns, chord changes—you have to be involved, in the moment. You have to be aware. I'm really trying to get away from the established way of playing. And sometimes it's very successful and sometimes it's not, but I'll live with that.

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