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J. J. Johnson: Pinnacles

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From the start of a decade, this tried to blend old faces with a new sound. The electric piano starts up; the sound flits from speaker to speaker in annoying fashion. The rhythm gets behind, Billy Higgins getting a firm hand on things. And then J.J. enters: dark and rich and full of confidence. He stutters his solo with short tight trumpet notes, then goes rumply with some guttural clusters. Tommy Flanagan goes quiet and cool, his electric stating the era, but with a calm that doesn’t quite fit the track. Joe Henderson gets it back with a growl and the same tone he used on Silver’s “Que Pasa”. He shouts little phrases, goes upward, and proclaims his toughness as Higgins pounds home.

Without pause we find ourselves at the beginning of “Deak”, a sly blues with warmer tone than the opener. Flanagan’s comping (on grand piano) is great as expected, and Ron Carter slides more than J.J. on his tuneful bit. Oscar Brashear flutters that trumpet, with a bit of “Blues in the Night”. There’s a great moment where Oscar shouts, and Carter’s bass seems to melt! It’s the good old days again – emphasis on the “good”.

“Cannonball Junction” is a funky place, Carter loaded with electronic gimmicks, the drums hot, the theme modern. Henderson takes the stage with a lonely sound – a little gravel and a lot of feeling. It’s a classic sound – and here Carter seems out of place. Joe gets more modern with fast stacatto and a hint of multiphonics. As on all of these, not every horn gets a solo – this adds variety, and intensity to the solos you do get. Given the focus, Henderson takes it with gusto, and his effort makes you glad you went to the Junction.

“Pinnacles” opens with a hard tone, and Flanagan’s delicate probing. Here he’s in his element; it makes you wish the keyboards stayed home. The voicings get lush, the chords ring happy, and it’s time for J.J. He smiles as he plays this, a lot of stabbing notes and a little bit of rasp. The edge belongs to Henderson; there’s a buzz in his horn and we catch it as he blows a whirlwind of notes. The title fits: this is the peak for Henderson and Flanagan.

“See See Rider” is the title, but this sounds more like “All Blues” than Ma Rainey. Flanagan keeps the resemblance going as J.J. gets a buttery solo. Brashear is on target, rolling the notes and hitting ‘em high. It’s his best moment, with Flanagan not far behind. “Mr. Clean” brings back the electronics (including Carter’s fuzztone, a very acquired taste.) This is deep ‘Seventies funk, with block horns and lots of percussion. It’s also pretty generic – these guys are more at home playing jazz, and that’s what they should be playing. Brashear whoops it up, breaking free as the bongos get hot. It’s a high seamless squeal with a nervous edge; it brings life to the number. His is the only solo, and his performance makes it worth hearing. It’s not the best way to hear the album, but after reaching “Pinnacles”, where does one go?


Title: Pinnacles | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Fantasy Jazz

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