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Russ Johnson: Working on the Tightrope

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For me, artistically it
New York trumpet player Russ Johnson's got a substantial résumé as a sideman on projects with players like Curtis Fowlkes, Johnnie Valentino, and Jenny Scheinman, but he's perhaps best known as a co-leader with Ohad Talmor in the longstanding Other Quartet. The side projects demonstrate his astonishing versatility, sensitivity and a technique that is unsurpassed by any trumpeter working today; the Other Quartet does so as well, besides showcasing some of Johnson's fine compositions—even if Talmor writes the majority of the group's material. Johnson finally goes it alone as a bandleader/composer on his remarkable new OmniTone CD Save Big. I spoke with Johnson about his new album and group, his fascination with texture and flow, and a great deal more.

All About Jazz: I want to plunge right into talking about your new Save Big CD. First, I want to say just how much I love the rhythm section of bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Mark Ferber. I'm delighted that Kermit's recording more nowadays; I think he's a great bassist for a pianoless quartet. No matter what's happening on any of the songs, I hear him forging ahead. He's completely aware of the song but he never chains himself completely to what anyone else is doing.

Russ Johnson: I agree completely. He also works well in piano-led quartets. I'm doing a gig with him tonight with [pianist] Mick Rossi—the release party for Mick's latest record. He's one of my favorite musicians. When I was putting this band together, I wanted Kermit. I actually specifically wrote a couple of the tunes for him. I wrote "Saguache for him, and then I wrote the duo piece for him. He's obviously had that long association with Bill Frisell, but that was playing electric, and when he plays upright, there's just this earthiness which appeals to me. It might not be everybody's taste but it is absolutely crucial for that band. I'd known Kermit for a while before I put that project together; we'd played together in a bunch of different settings. He's pretty crucial—I did a couple of gigs he wasn't able to make in the beginning, and the tunes just did not come off the way I wanted them. He has the ability to be completely open. The way I write, I give the rhythm section a sketch, or an idea, or a figure. And then, because I trust them so much, I leave it up to them. And I feel I can trust Kermit to make musical decisions all the time. And it's good to see him getting out there—some of the press that I've been getting for this record has been very positive for Kermit, and it's nice to see that too.

AAJ: Now, you've worked before with drummer Mark Ferber in the Other Quartet, the group you co-lead with reeds player Ohad Talmor. Why'd you use Ferber for this record?

RJ: Well, Mark is one of the most versatile drummers in New York—on the planet, for that matter. So the Other Quartet, that's a little edgier because texturally, the sound of the band is completely different. There's no bass; there's guitar. But Mark is so versatile that I can hear him in any context. You just hook up with certain players and we have a really strong hookup. We play together in a bunch of projects: probably like four or five bands that work somewhat regularly. He also has the ability to drive the band but still keep it quiet. A lot of this music for me is textural—there's a sonic quality that I'm looking for. With him, I never have to overplay. With a lot of drummers, when they hit hard, it gets in my way—maybe with the way their cymbals sound or just the way they actually hit the drums. Mark is able to play as hard as he wants and sonically I never feel like I have to overblow. Which is something that's really crucial for me; I don't like situations where it gets incredibly loud for extended periods of time. And I like that timbral diversity too, and Mark's able to bring that pretty much to any project he's involved in.

AAJ: "Rhythm section is perhaps an inappropriate term here, since the four of you are often all working around an unstated pulse and even Ferber's drumming feels like another melody—but I think if there is a high point for this rhythm section on this album for me, it's "Constantinople. I'm also very interested in "Constantinople because it's got a very deliberate tempo, especially when the band first comes in after your unaccompanied trumpet intro. I feel that deliberate tempo gives the song an ominous quality it wouldn't have if the tempo were faster; then it would just be fun.

RJ: [Laughing] I think that's a pretty good statement. Yeah, harmonically, the way it's constructed as well, I'm borrowing on some Middle Eastern kinds of scales—so that kind of gives a little bit of that. But you're absolutely right. You know, I bring in the tempo, and I don't always bring it in exactly where I'd like it—and if it's too fast, the tune doesn't work. It changes character completely. It becomes almost happy, as you were saying. It completely changes it, and I wanted it to be that dark thing. But Ferber, his playing behind everything—getting back to what you were saying before about the rhythm section, and feeling odd calling it a rhythm section: I feel very, very strongly about that.

When I did the mix for the record, I specifically mixed the drums and bass way up front—equal to the horn players. It's a band; my name is attached to it because I wrote the music, but it's truly, truly a band. These guys are able to take what little thread I give them—I have vamps written out, stuff like that, and these guys are able to take it, shape it, make it their own, and give me the quality I'm looking for without me having to say anything to them. So as far as, like, a rhythm section, it's really four guys communicating. I don't like that "horn players out front, rhythm section in back —you know, guys taking their solos and then walking off the bandstand, forgetting about it completely while [laughing] the rhythm section's sitting there pounding it out for the next guy.

AAJ: Well, then you might as well just have a drum machine or backing tracks.

RJ: Yeah, sure. That's why I don't know how rhythm section players deal with playing jam sessions when there's, you know, forty guys up there playing way too many choruses. But the point is, I like to think that everybody in this band had equal say in what happens, in the direction. And there are certain things that happen relatively consistently when we play. But there's other times where the tunes sound completely different just because somebody's got an idea. One of the reasons I chose those guys is that trust thing; if they want to take it somewhere, I'm willing to go along for the ride—wherever they want to go.

AAJ: There's a lot of space in these songs on this record. I like how you're willing to not just slow down a piece, but bring it to a real halt. That takes some courage, since some listeners get confused or nervous if the tempo's not just rolling along. The most obvious example is "Saguache, which starts out with that easy groove before the solos begin—but you keep interrupting it with that Cootie Williams-ish plunger-mute trumpet phrase. It's really playful. The album's got lots of moments where the time goes from unstated pulse to no time at all, just space. Why do you like to do this?

RJ: For me it's all about flow, and you can achieve flow with having steady pulse—no doubt. And the greatest players make that flow happen all the time. In this band, this project, I wanted that same flow, but I wanted the flow to be lasting. If you're speaking in conversation, there are times where the conversation speeds up, and times where the conversation slows down. Naturally, the rhythms when we speak, or when we do anything—we don't work at the exact same pace all the time. So with this, it was a question of creating some of those spots. In "Rapid Comfort as well, there's a totally unrelated time section. In that particular one, I wanted a stark contrast between the two figures, the two main sections. As far as "Saguache —when I wrote the tune, I was on a solo backpacking trip in Colorado. I was camped at 10,000 feet; I actually had my horn. And I was looking over this valley, and I was specifically thinking of Kermit. He's from Nebraska, and whatever that Midwest thing is [Johnson is originally from Wisconsin], I can kind of feel it, I can hear it—the wide-open spaces thing. And so when I wrote it, I wrote the two sections, and I originally wrote them in time. But it just didn't feel like it breathed the way I wanted it to. So I decided to play rubato in that second section—and it's different pretty much every time we play it, too; it's never the exact same tempo. But I was just trying to get, basically, a flow thing.

AAJ: You're going for a more organic flow that resembles our human metabolisms. The organic tempo—

RJ: Of life! Definitely. And that's one of my favorite things on the record, actually; that's why I put it first.

AAJ: I love the solo parts on "Saguache, too. You and O'Gallagher play pretty contrapuntally at times there, and when you're playing those parts, somehow it seems to turn the beat upside down. I'm not familiar with O'Gallagher's work. Have you played with him much?

RJ: He's my oldest friend. I went to Berklee for one year in the mid-eighties, and I met John—along with a million other great players. But he and I had a hookup; we met our first day there and we've now known each other for twenty years. He was the best man at my wedding. We have a thing. I mean, there are a few players, like Ohad Talmor from the Other Quartet—a few players you meet where you just have that hookup, and with John, it's incredible: no matter what we're doing, there's absolutely no thought that goes into it as far as intonation or phrasing or anything like that. We just happen to breathe in the same spot, and to attack notes and hear phrasing in the same way. And as far as the counterpoint part of it, that comes from being a good listener. When you're playing music that's as open as this is, if you're not intently listening—if you're worried about what you're playing rather whan what everybody's playing, it will die a very quick death! [laughing] And with John, he has the ability to play as many notes as anybody, ever, but he's really pared down his thing in this way and his listening is so strong. But there are times where we totally go for counterpoint. It's unstated counterpoint, obviously, but one of us will be playing long phrases and the other'll be playing short phrases. Or one of us will be ascending and the other will be descending. And there are times where we find that musical rub we're looking for and hang on to that—he's just an incredible musician. Great, great listener. He's my oldest musical associate and there's a lot of history there.
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