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Big Eyed Rabbit: Max Johnson: Big Eyed Rabbit

Karl Ackermann By

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Bassist Max Johnson is one of the most prolific and versatile musician/composers in music today and likely on the verge of a major breakthrough. Barely past the year's mid-point Johnson has offered three fine releases with different groups and distinctly different styles. Recording with Kirk Knuffke on cornet on Johnson's namesake trio release The Invisible Trio (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2014) the approach was a broad mix of multi-layered structure and unfettered originality. Shortly afterward, Johnson released The Prisoner (NoBusiness Records, 2014) with a quartet that included saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and violist Mat Maneri. Here the avant-garde music was inspired by the classic Patrick McGoohan counter-culture television series of the same name. Now with another new trio—Big Eyed Rabbit—Johnson has turned out a self-titled album that is truly unique and exceedingly entertaining.

Big Eyed Rabbit is the fulfillment of a Johnson dream. In a 2011 All About Jazz article, he imagined being one-third of a trio that would ideally include guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Gerry Hemingway and would perform gospel and fiddle tunes. In 2012 Johnson realized a version of that goal with the formation of Big Eyed Rabbit who—in large part—take some traditional fiddle tunes and stand them on their heads with free-spirited improvisations. The remarkable guitarist Ross Martin is a veteran of blues, bluegrass and Celtic recordings but here he plays like he was born into this hybrid jazz/bluegrass setting. Rounding out the trio is drummer Jeff Davis, bringing his own considerable background that ranges from traditional folk to R&B.

Big Eyed Rabbit includes two classic pieces from the "Father of Bluegrass," Bill Monroe, and a nineteenth-century Appalachian fiddle tune that opens the album. "Cluck Old Hen" is a bit of reverse engineering where the trio improvises somewhat independently of each other before Martin finally introduces the melody, Davis skitters around the kit and Johnson takes up the bow. Once the melody has been established, the trio reverts to improvisation though now more organized around the central theme and with a bit of a rock beat. Without preconceived expectations, it is a surprising transition from the unstructured introduction to the strikingly rendered—and perfectly modernized—piece of Americana. Similarly, the two Monroe tunes, "Brown County Breakdown" and "My Last Days on Earth" are effective cross-pollinations of styles, but not in the sense of fusion. The blending of bluegrass and avant-garde is transitional with both genres standing on their own and somehow working together. "My Last Days on Earth" opens with several minutes of high-pitched flutters and noises and plinks from Johnson's bowed bass before Davis adds his own tinkering noises. This experimental phase gives way to Johnson and Martin using their respective instruments as proxies for fiddle and mandolin.

The original pieces on Big Eyed Rabbit are no less inventive. Johnson's "Mr. Sherbert" opens with a title-appropriate trace of west-coast cool complimented with an up tempo blues element that keeps it consistent with overall environment presented on the album. Davis takes complex but understated solos here and on his own composition, "One of My Happiness." The latter is less in the vein of the whole collection but provides exceptionally lyrical work by Martin. Martin's own writing contribution, "Poughkeepsie Ridge" opens with deference to the traditional genres and features some of Johnson's most outstandingly intricate playing.

Incorporating flavors that range from barn-dancing to free jazz could easily be a formula for catastrophe but Johnson, Martin and Davis have all but given a name to their anomalous development in innovation. Whatever Johnson may have envisioned for his original dream trio, it's hard to imagine that he could have produced a better-quality end product. Big Eyed Rabbit is an brilliant achievement on many levels with its outstanding use of history, raw musical talent and a uniquely creative approach. This is highly recommended.

Track Listing: Cluck Old Hen; Mr. Sherbert; Poughkeepsie Ridge; Brown County Breakdown; One of my Happiness; Fisherman's Footlocker; My Last Days on Earth.

Personnel: Ross Martin: electric guitar; Max Johnson: bass; Jeff Davis: drums.

Title: Max Johnson: Big Eyed Rabbit | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: NotTwo Records

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