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Howard Johnson and Gravity: Testimony

Jack Bowers By

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Those who see the tuba as a sluggish, unwieldy instrument capable only of rounding out a musical composition in the lower register may have to rethink that appraisal after listening to Testimony, in which multi-instrumentalist and tuba master Howard Johnson ushers no less than half a dozen tubas and rhythm through their paces in a session that is anything but lethargic.

True, the tonal range is more in the basement than the attic, but Johnson and his teammates manage to display the tuba's melodic—and, dare we say, nimble —side in a program that ranges from blues to funk, gospel to burners and includes themes by McCoy Tyner, Carole King, Nedra Johnson, Bob Neloms and Wilton Felder alongside a pair by the leader. Besides Johnson, the front-liners are charter members Dave Bargeron and Bob Stewart, Velvet Brown, Earl McIntyre and Joseph Daley , supported by pianist Carlton Holmes, bassist Melissa Slocum and drummer Buddy Williams. Nedra Johnson adds her voice to an eight-member backup choir on her own composition, "Working Hard for the Joneses."

An exception to the low-level ambiance is Johnson's sermon-like "Little Black Lucille," dedicated to an aunt, on which he plays the seldom-heard penny whistle, accompanied solely by the rhythm section. It stands in stark contrast to the balance of the program, which opens with another Johnson original, the fast-moving "Testimony," on which he and Bargeron show that the tuba can make itself at home even when the tempo would seem to dictate otherwise. "The Joneses" is next, with Nedra Johnson and the chorus explaining that a "jones" is a gig, which is different from "keeping up with the Joneses" but means working hard to earn a living and keep the sharks at bay. Holmes' splendid solo precedes another by Howard Johnson.

Tyner's finger-popping "Fly with the Wind" and loping, bop-infused "High Priest" (a bow to Thelonious Monk) are sandwiched around King's "Natural Woman," a gospel-inspired elegy on which Brown succeeds in making the tuba sound like a bass trombone or even a mellophonium (which she teaches at Penn State University). The ensemble is at its lyrical best on Neloms' colorful and engaging "Evolution," which the leader says he learned from the author at age eighteen (a number of years ago), adding that Neloms (who is two years younger than Johnson) "doesn't even remember writing it." Johnson, McIntyre, Bargeron and Stewart append agile solos, as do an uncredited Holmes and Williams. The ensemble closes with Felder's soulful "Way Back Home," a staple in the bassist / saxophonist's repertoire before his passing in September 2015 and a theme that ends appropriately with the tubas resonating in harmony.

While Gravity (formed way back in 1968) may be too weighty for some, it clearly shows that the tuba, when placed in the proper hands, is a more versatile instrument than is often presumed, capable of much more than background oom- pahs and able, in this case, to carry an entire album on its ponderous back. Hearing is believing.

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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