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J.J. Johnson: Heroes

Jim Santella By

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Still paving the way for younger trombone-playing leaders and composers, J.J. Johnson at 75 plays that instrument better than any other jazz artist does. Remember Kid Ory, Jack Teagarden, Vic Dickenson, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey? Don’t forget Frank Rosolino. And there’s Urbie Green, John Fedchock, Steve Turre, Wycliffe Gordon, Robin Eubanks, and Ray Anderson. Lots more names too, but the list is nothing compared to the large numbers of trumpeters and tenor saxophone players who’ve led bands and whose names would roll right off your tongue without the need for reference materials. The trombone-playing leader is a minority in today’s market, but a welcome entity nonetheless.

Johnson began his jazz career as a teenager, working and recording with big bands. When bebop appeared, the trombonist was working with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and as a leader. In 1954, Johnson teamed up with trombonist Kai Winding for a few successful years and then began to concentrate more on composing. His writing and arranging has been heard in the concert hall, on television and in movie theaters for the past 40 years. All tracks on Heroes except "Blue in Green" and "Blue Train" are his compositions, which reflect thematic concepts associated with their titles. Johnson uses multi-tracked saxophone and trombone voices from Faulk and his own horn to create the effect of a larger, fuller unit. The imagery drifts from an early morning startup to an evening wind-down, and through some interesting places. Of course, the rhythm section fits Johnson’s ideas to the letter. "Vista" is performed by solo piano and represents a lovely panoramic view, while the piano-trombone duet "Better Days" finds Johnson’s melancholy horn reflecting on the better days we’ve seen. The piece could easily fold into the setting of a Gershwin opera. For those interested, there’s a J.J. Johnson listserver whose FAQ page contains pointers to a thorough biography and discography. To subscribe, simply follow the instructions found at http://www.calvert.com/jjlist.html .

Johnson’s tribute to Monk is a quirky and adventuresome composition with an arrangement containing soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, trombone, and rhythm section. "Blue in Green" is just as exciting, as the alternating duple and triple meter (amounting to a 5/4 signature) transfers the moody piece to the listener on soprano sax, flugelhorn, and trombone timbres with supporting rhythm. The familiar opening of "Blue Train" leads to a lesson in contrast, as Faulk urges his tenor saxophone to dynamic volume highs and lows. Much as the Kai and J.J. duo from four decades past capitalized on contrasting trombone styles, Johnson’s quintet brings disparate voices together and creates a colorful picture. Highly Recommended.


Track Listing: Carolyn (in the Morning); Ten-85; Thelonious the Onliest; Vista; In Walked Wayne; Better Days; Blue in Green; Blue Train; Carolyn (in the Evening).

Personnel: J.J. Johnson- trombone; Dan Faulk- soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone; Renee Rosnes- piano; Rufus Reid- acoustic bass; Victor Lewis- drums; Wayne Shorter- tenor saxophone on "In Walked Wayne"; Don Sickler- flugelhorn on "Blue in Green".

Title: Heroes | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Verve Music Group

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