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J.J. Johnson: The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson, Volumes 1 and 2 – Blue Note 1505 and 1506

Marc Davis By

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Enter the album name hereThink of jazz, and the trombone almost never comes to mind.

Didn't used to be. In the beginning, every jazz band had a trombone. But that was the Dixieland era, and Dixieland bands aren't much in vogue anymore. (Unless you're a fan of HBO's Treme and you listen to Trombone Shorty. Sadly, not enough people do, or Treme would still be on the air.)

Then came the big band era, and suddenly lots of trombones were the fashion, all in one band. Think Tommy Dorsey or Juan Tizol of the Duke Ellington band.

And then there was bebop. Suddenly, everything but the trombone was cool. There were plenty of bebop trumpeters and pianists and sax players and bassists. But trombones? There was really just one, and J.J. Johnson was it.

But damn, he was good.

One good place to begin with J.J. Johnson are the albums with fellow trombonist Kai Winding. They made lots, and all are good. But they're an odd bunch—quick, name one other trombone duo—and if not exactly a novelty, they aren't exactly representative, either.

Better to start with the classic Blue Note sides. These are the earliest and maybe the best.

J.J. Johnson could do what few trombonists before him could: spit out lots of notes, very fast, melodically, on an instrument not exactly designed for it. Bebop is easy—well, easier—on a piano or trumpet or sax. Not so the trombone, with its cumbersome slide. Johnson made it sound easy.

These two Blue Note records chronicle three recording sessions from 1953 to 1955. The best takes are the earliest, with the phenomenal young trumpeter Clifford Brown sounding an awful lot like a latter-day Dizzy Gillespie. The Johnson original, "Turnpike," even sounds uncannily like Dizzy's "Salt Peanuts."

(Unfortunately, Volume 1 also includes a John Lewis original, "Sketch 1," which sounds very much like a chamber-jazz number for the Modern Jazz Quartet. Not surprising, since the group featured three future members of the MJQ, including Lewis. Sadly, it's doesn't give Johnson much to work with.)

Volume 2 features two more groups, including one with conga master Sabu, and several bouncy Latin-tinged numbers. The third group includes a fluid, bopping Horace Silver sounding great—every bit the equal to Johnson.

In the bebop world, J.J. Johnson was virtually a sound unto himself. These two Blue Note classics are an excellent place to hear him at his best.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Availability: Many copies on Amazon, new and used

Cost: Under $4 each used

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