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Moers Festival Interviews: Max Johnson

Moers Festival Interviews: Max Johnson

Courtesy David Ducon


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New York bassist Max Johnson has embarked on a European tour with his trio, in the run-up to the release of their new album Orbit Of Sound (Unbroken Sounds, 2022). They are playing crucial venues such as Roskam in Brussels and The Loft in Cologne, doubtless climaxing at the Moers Festival, also in Germany (3rd-6th June). Prior to the tour, the trio hadn't played together since August 2021, when they recorded the album.

Your scribe was roaming around during the Brussels Jazz Weekend, and the trio's gig at Roskam last Sunday provided an absolutely grand climax, on that final evening. All three band members were glowing with vividly targeted energy. Johnson initiated power progressions, [[Anna Webber]] hovered in the higher range of her tenor saxophone, Michael Sarin specialised in mixing his drumsticks, often matching a brush or reed-clump with a regular stick. There was a pronounced accumulation of tenor flutters, sharp rimshots and pizzicato bass. "A Quick One" was continually active, like a nest-building insect, with an intensely scuttling solo by Sarin. They ended up with a gristly manifestation of post-Tim Berne math-jazz, turbulently convoluted, but with an outer skin of natural roughness.

After the trio's two sets, your scribe sat down with Johnson, the ensuing interview backed by the foreground-volume sounds of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago. "We got mostly lucky in March 2020," recalls Johnson. "We had a tour booked for the end of February through to the beginning of March. We were going to record the day after our last show, in Italy. Of course, the gig and recording got cancelled." They thought that they'd reschedule it sometime soon, but in reality there was a long wait, as the lockdowns ground onward.

How did the trio come together? "I'd played with Anna and Michael a little bit, in different settings," says Johnson. "Me and Michael played a couple of gigs with [pianist] Simon Nabatov, when he was in New York, and we did a record together. Anna is someone who I've admired for a long time, as a composer and improviser. She would just be able to play anything, she's someone I can trust with any kind of music. I had one of those grandiose plans to write a bunch of music, but by the time our first gig happened, I was just too busy with life, and didn't write a lick of music. So our gig was freely improvised and it felt like it had this 'we can go anywhere' quality. I have fingers in different pies. I definitely want to be exploring different areas of improvisation, and this really felt like it freed the way to go in a lot of different directions. I would say it's probably 20% written, 80% improvised. A lot of the stuff has musical cues. Someone can bring one of the ideas in, and I'll play some written music, and it'll transition to another area."

Johnson composed most of the music with these particular players in mind, but there are also a couple of older numbers which he's reconfigured. The trio's Moers set might only feature two pieces, as they have a tendency to stretch out at length. All three members will be playing additional sets, for either the Moersify or Moers Sessions platforms. Johnson was also given the freedom to invite artists to the festival, so he's chosen saxophonists Michaël Attias and Frank Gratkowski, the latter appearing in a grouping that also includes bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Jason Nazary.

"This looks like they're fully back this year, and I'm really excited about that," Johnson beams, happy to be playing at Moers, and touring without restrictions. "This tour's the big thing for us, this year. I haven't played any festivals over here for a while. The last one I did was some years ago with James Brandon Lewis's band. This tour coincides with us putting a record out. I've started a new label, to put out a lot of recordings of mine, some of which have been around a while, some of which are new. For at least the rest of this year, and next year, there's going to be a number of releases. Studio recordings, mostly."

Johnson is also planning an album of solo bass improvisations. Early in 2023 he'll release a set of four chamber works for trios and quartets. He also plays the electric bass occasionally, usually when specifically requested. Johnson played with Project/Object for a spell, a band dedicated to the music of Frank Zappa. Two or three years ago, Johnson was touring regularly with various bluegrass combos, although that situation hasn't yet reactivated, post-lockdown. He's also been teaching music theory and music appreciation at Brooklyn College.

For the trio, Johnson is plotting a pair of short US tours, around the midwest and the east coast. He also has a major show coming up at Roulette in NYC, later in June 2022. It will combine composed works for small groupings and a set with Johnson leading a quintet. "After that, I'm going to enjoy the summer," he declares.

Aside from Roulette, where he's presently a Resident Artist, Johnson also digs Barbès, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for its charm and variety of musical entertainment. It's also one of your scribe's very favourite haunts. "Barbès always feels like home. I'm always free to do whatever I like. I've been playing there, on and off, for 10 years. The way that I think about music is that there's a small number of things that I like, just truly love so deeply, and they mean so much to me, histories, traditions. I'm not trying to be great at everything, but I like to be really serious about the three or four things that I really, really love. In the last six or seven years, the compositions for chamber groups have been a really big, important part of my life. After Roulette, I'm reassessing, seeing who I want to work with, and who wants to work with me. It's like a dance."

Once again, the conversation moves back to the lockdown beginnings, which was when Johnson decided to shed his long-familiar curly locks, trimming down to a shorter cut. "In 2020, when there were no outlets for me to play, it was really nice to be able to work on creating music for others. I was able to be still making music as a composer, rather than playing shows. When the pandemic started, it kind of crushed my spirit. I didn't play the bass for about four months. I just couldn't bear to play. Oddly enough, the thing that got me back into playing was Art Blakey, and saying 'man, I want to play along with this music.' So I would just get the bass out and play along with the records. For some reason, [bassist] Jymie Merritt, in Art Blakey's band, was what made me start playing again. I can thank Art Blakey for getting my endurance back. I could barely get through one tune, with no calluses. I'm still working on it... "

After witnessing the trio's set at Roskam in Brussels last weekend, there is no doubting Johnson's endurance, dexterity and power. It remains modest while undertaking this endless journey of education and discovery.

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