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Howard Johnson and Gravity: Testimony

Roger Farbey By

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Howard Johnson really should need no introduction. He's played with many of the greats including Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp, Hank Crawford, Jack DeJohnette and Gil Evans (his solo on "Voodoo Child" was a highlight of Evans's Jimi Hendrix tribute album). He also appeared on Carla Bley's seminal 1971 album Escalator Over The Hill. Throughout his career, Johnson has been a trailblazer in the acceptance of the tuba in modern jazz, not merely as an oompah substitute for the bass but as a proper soloing instrument in its own right. Johnson has assembled a veritable clutch (if that's the appropriate collective noun) of tuba players including another tuba pioneer, the renowned Bob Stewart. The album is a belated follow-up to Johnson's Gravity and Right Now! from 1995 and 1998 respectively, which included several of the same tuba players featured here.

The opening title track is worth the entrance fee alone just for its astounding, albeit brief, collective ascending glissando at the very end of the number. But it's also a strong piece with a robust and inventive tuba solo from Johnson. The succeeding track "Working Hard For The Joneses" is an infectious and upbeat blues, written by and featuring daughter Nedra Johnson on lead vocals. McCoy Tyner's affecting fast-paced "Fly With The Wind" again features Johnson and also Dave Bargeron on tuba solos. This lengthy and memorable track is something of a showpiece for the album and sounds all the better for its heavy yet deft brass treatment.

A sensitive interpretation of Carol King's "Natural Woman," with the tuba melody and improvisation played by Velvet Brown, is followed by another Tyner composition, the ebullient "High Priest" which benefits from some quirky Thelonius Monk-ish swing with Johnson soloing here on baritone sax. Johnson display even more versatility on "Little Black Lucille" when elegantly leading the number's melody on penny whistle, and providing some nifty soloing on the instrument too. Could there be any greater contrast between that pocket-sized instrument and the gargantuan tuba?

One important factor of this recording, as confirmed by the closing numbers "Evolution," enhanced by Johnson's nimble soloing, and the foot-tapping "Way Back Home" is that despite the challenges posed by the sheer immensity of the instrument, the tuba is more than capable of successfully executing both lead and improvisational roles. When these staggeringly proportioned brass instruments perform in an ensemble arrangement as heard here, confounding all expectations and maybe even the laws of physics, the effect is like a veritable modern-day nuclear-powered Birth Of The Cool.

Track Listing: Testimony; Working Hard for the Joneses; Fly with the Wind; Natural Woman; High Priest; Little Black Lucille; Evolution; Way Back Home.

Personnel: Howard Johnson: tuba, baritone saxophone, penny whistle; Velvet Brown, Dave Bargeron, Earl McIntyre; Joseph Daley, Bob Stewart: tuba; Carlton Holmes: piano; Melissa Slocum: bass; Buddy Williams: drums. Guests: Nedra Johnson: vocals on track 2; Joe Exley: tuba tracks 1,5,6,7,8; CJ Wright, Butch Watson, Mem Nahadr: backing vocals tracks 2.

Title: Testimony | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Tuscarora Records

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