Russ Johnson: Working on the Tightrope

By Published: | 20,243 views
For me, artistically its more satisfying when Im on that tightrope. Im willing to have it suck some nights and have it be magical other nights. If youre not playing over very strict chord patterns, chord changes--you have to be involved, in the moment. You have to be aware.
New York trumpet player Russ Johnson's got a substantial résumé as a sideman on projects with players like Curtis Fowlkes, Johnnie Valentino, and Jenny Scheinman, but he's perhaps best known as a co-leader with Ohad Talmor in the longstanding Other Quartet. The side projects demonstrate his astonishing versatility, sensitivity and a technique that is unsurpassed by any trumpeter working today; the Other Quartet does so as well, besides showcasing some of Johnson's fine compositions—even if Talmor writes the majority of the group's material. Johnson finally goes it alone as a bandleader/composer on his remarkable new OmniTone CD Save Big. I spoke with Johnson about his new album and group, his fascination with texture and flow, and a great deal more.

All About Jazz: I want to plunge right into talking about your new Save Big CD. First, I want to say just how much I love the rhythm section of bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Mark Ferber. I'm delighted that Kermit's recording more nowadays; I think he's a great bassist for a pianoless quartet. No matter what's happening on any of the songs, I hear him forging ahead. He's completely aware of the song but he never chains himself completely to what anyone else is doing.

Russ Johnson: I agree completely. He also works well in piano-led quartets. I'm doing a gig with him tonight with [pianist] Mick Rossi—the release party for Mick's latest record. He's one of my favorite musicians. When I was putting this band together, I wanted Kermit. I actually specifically wrote a couple of the tunes for him. I wrote "Saguache for him, and then I wrote the duo piece for him. He's obviously had that long association with Bill Frisell, but that was playing electric, and when he plays upright, there's just this earthiness which appeals to me. It might not be everybody's taste but it is absolutely crucial for that band. I'd known Kermit for a while before I put that project together; we'd played together in a bunch of different settings. He's pretty crucial—I did a couple of gigs he wasn't able to make in the beginning, and the tunes just did not come off the way I wanted them. He has the ability to be completely open. The way I write, I give the rhythm section a sketch, or an idea, or a figure. And then, because I trust them so much, I leave it up to them. And I feel I can trust Kermit to make musical decisions all the time. And it's good to see him getting out there—some of the press that I've been getting for this record has been very positive for Kermit, and it's nice to see that too.

AAJ: Now, you've worked before with drummer Mark Ferber in the Other Quartet, the group you co-lead with reeds player Ohad Talmor. Why'd you use Ferber for this record?

RJ: Well, Mark is one of the most versatile drummers in New York—on the planet, for that matter. So the Other Quartet, that's a little edgier because texturally, the sound of the band is completely different. There's no bass; there's guitar. But Mark is so versatile that I can hear him in any context. You just hook up with certain players and we have a really strong hookup. We play together in a bunch of projects: probably like four or five bands that work somewhat regularly. He also has the ability to drive the band but still keep it quiet. A lot of this music for me is textural—there's a sonic quality that I'm looking for. With him, I never have to overplay. With a lot of drummers, when they hit hard, it gets in my way—maybe with the way their cymbals sound or just the way they actually hit the drums. Mark is able to play as hard as he wants and sonically I never feel like I have to overblow. Which is something that's really crucial for me; I don't like situations where it gets incredibly loud for extended periods of time. And I like that timbral diversity too, and Mark's able to bring that pretty much to any project he's involved in.

AAJ: "Rhythm section is perhaps an inappropriate term here, since the four of you are often all working around an unstated pulse and even Ferber's drumming feels like another melody—but I think if there is a high point for this rhythm section on this album for me, it's "Constantinople. I'm also very interested in "Constantinople because it's got a very deliberate tempo, especially when the band first comes in after your unaccompanied trumpet intro. I feel that deliberate tempo gives the song an ominous quality it wouldn't have if the tempo were faster; then it would just be fun.

RJ: [Laughing] I think that's a pretty good statement. Yeah, harmonically, the way it's constructed as well, I'm borrowing on some Middle Eastern kinds of scales—so that kind of gives a little bit of that. But you're absolutely right. You know, I bring in the tempo, and I don't always bring it in exactly where I'd like it—and if it's too fast, the tune doesn't work. It changes character completely. It becomes almost happy, as you were saying. It completely changes it, and I wanted it to be that dark thing. But Ferber, his playing behind everything—getting back to what you were saying before about the rhythm section, and feeling odd calling it a rhythm section: I feel very, very strongly about that.

When I did the mix for the record, I specifically mixed the drums and bass way up front—equal to the horn players. It's a band; my name is attached to it because I wrote the music, but it's truly, truly a band. These guys are able to take what little thread I give them—I have vamps written out, stuff like that, and these guys are able to take it, shape it, make it their own, and give me the quality I'm looking for without me having to say anything to them. So as far as, like, a rhythm section, it's really four guys communicating. I don't like that "horn players out front, rhythm section in back —you know, guys taking their solos and then walking off the bandstand, forgetting about it completely while [laughing] the rhythm section's sitting there pounding it out for the next guy.

comments powered by Disqus
Sponsor: ECM Records | BUY NOW

Enter it twice.
To the weekly jazz events calendar

Enter the numbers in the graphic
Enter the code in this picture

Log in

One moment, you will be redirected shortly.

or search site with Google