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Jeff Johnson: Suitcase

Dan McClenaghan By

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Bassist Jeff Johnson traveled the United States from the 1970s until 1990. He followed the work during his time of transience, and played an array of styles, from R&B to country, from blues to pop, and jazz. Then he put his suitcase down in Seattle and evolved into something of a house bassist for Origin Records, backing pianists Jessica Williams and Hal Galper, saxophonist Mark Taylor, vocalists Carrie Wicks and Jeff Baker, drummer John Bishop, and many more.

For his own recordings, he favors a free jazz approach and the trio—saxophone, bass and drums. His trio, with saxophonist Han Teuber's smooth, fluid sound in the center, is spacious and cool, a sort of West Coast Zen music. But on Suitcase, Johnson adds a pianist into the fold for the first time since 2001's Art of Falling (Origin Records).

The quartet's chemistry is remarkable. While Johnson has been playing and recording with Teuber for more than twenty years, pianist Steve Moore and drummer Eric Eagle are newcomers who have lent a new dimension to the bassist's sound. Moore, in this setting, is very effectively stingy with the notes he plays, placing them perfectly in this flexible, chamber music-like ensemble; and Eagle is a master of percussive subtlety who has no problem laying on a bit of muscle when the situation calls for it. And it calls for it on Johnson's "Scene West," and "Soweto Man, where the bassist leads the group deep into the groove.

With the exception of the disc's opener, "Shake it Off," an in-the-moment, four-way improvisation, all the tunes are from Johnson's pen, written during his "twenty years of wandering" around the country, following the jobs. "Avion" features Teuber on bass clarinet, contributing a smooth, deep tone to a tune that floats, untethered in a cloud- drift mode. "Kiwi" is a rather jaunty, light-stepping waltz and "Artist" has a brooding, late night mood, with Teuber at his most beautiful.

"Letters for Marcy," written for the special lady in Johnson's life, is a gorgeous, tender love song, with Johnson singing the woman's praises in the most poignant of fashions on his Fender Jazz bass, before Teuber blows in like an intimate whisper. The band closes with "Soweto Man," with Teuber's alto flute layered over a steady dance beat, wrapping up Johnson's finest recording to date.

Track Listing: Shake It Off; Scene West; Avion; Kiwi; Artist; Illuminati; Picasso; Letters for Marcy; Soweto Man."

Personnel: Jeff Johnson: acoustic and Fender bass; Hans Teuber: saxophones, bass clarinet, alto flute; Steve Moore: piano; Eric Eagle: drums.

Title: Suitcase | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: Origin Records

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