Max Johnson: The Prisoner (2014)
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NYC-based bassist Max Johnson already boasts an impressively strong discography, after just two entries: Quartet (Not Two, 2013) and Elevated Vegetation (FMR, 2012). With a new crew on board for The Prisoner, he tackles that hoary chestnut the concept album. Except of course that in the medium of jazz, this doesn't mean a string of banal lyrics squeezed into a narrative straitjacket, rather in this case a series of musical constructs inspired by the 1960s British TV series of the same name. For those who don't know the program it was an influential and surreal thriller about a former secret agent held prisoner in a strange coastal village resort where his captors try to find out why he abruptly resigned from his job.
However unfamiliarity with the show is no barrier to enjoyment of the disc. But by using the storytelling arc as a framework, Johnson comes up with a sequence of pieces which frequently verge on the mysterious, begetting unexpected configurations and moods, such as the sprightly jig which pops up midway through "No.24 Hammer into Anvil." Johnson has selected his band mates wisely for such a venture. Both saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and violist Mat Maneri eschew the obvious in favor of inscrutable elliptical statements entirely in keeping with the leader's enigmatic charts, which resolutely avoid the head-solos-head orthodoxy.
Johnson excels not only as a writer but also as a performer, reveling in a resonant tone and incisive articulation, whether wielding the bow or picking the strings. Laubrock continues to blossom following her move to NYC. She exudes authority, whether intoning in a measured middle register or exploding into braying overblowing. By contrast Maneri offers a more restrained voice, as his microtonal lines engender a distinctive acerbic but ambiguous flavor though his fierce sawing on "The New Number 2" forms a highlight, testimony to the drama he can create. However the high pitched whistle he produces at the outset of "No.24 Hammer into Anvil" remains unsettling. This must be one of drummer Tomas Fujiwara's most compelling outings. He covers all stations from conversational to tuneful to forceful, without ever becoming bombastic or overpowering.
Johnson allows his cast room to express their own personalities while staying true to his overall conception. Right from the start it's clear that the intertwining of the leader's arco with Maneri's sinuous viola provides an enormous asset, a point reinforced on the mercurial yet ascetic "No.12 Schitzoid Man (Gemini)." Following road testing, the players thoroughly nail the complex pieces. Pertinent examples abound but one noteworthy illustration presents in the seasoned way in which Laubrock enters after a Maneri/Fujiwara duet in "No.48 Living in Harmony" to bring about a roiling anthemic conclusion. While in the liners Johnson suggests that the work should be heard as a suite, each track stands amply on its own merits, revealing more on every subsequent listen.
Track Listing: No.6 Arrival / No.58 Orange Alert; X04; No.12 Schitzoid Man (Gemini); No.24 Hammer into Anvil; No.48 Living in Harmony; The New Number 2; No.2 Once Upon a Time / No.1 Fallout.
Personnel: Ingrid Laubrock: tenor saxophone; Mat Maneri: viola; Max Johnson: bass; Tomas Fujiwara: drums.
Record Label: NoBusiness Records
Style: Free Improv/Avant-Garde