Friday, April 23, 2010

J.J. Inc. – A Look at the Music of J.J. Johnson

© -Steven Cerra. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

At a point in the development of recording technology when you could still do such things, I literally wore out my copy of trombonist J. J. Johnson’s Columbia LP - J.J. Inc. [1606]. I still have the scarred LP to prove it. Imagine my delight, then, when it was re-issued as a CD [Columbia/Legacy CK 65296] with three [3] additional tracks, no less!

Why does this album have such a great appeal to me?  After all, although my father venerated the music of trombonist Jack Teagarden, I am not a trombonist nor have I ever had any desire to be one [this also in spite of the fact that as a teenager, I had the opportunity to hear the marvelous trombonist Frank Rosolino as a member of the Lighthouse All-Stars on an almost weekly basis].

Over the years, my mates who played the instrument made me aware of the technical reasons why many trombonists revered J.J. and many of these skills and qualities are outlined below in trombonist’s Steve Turre’s insert notes to the CD reissue.

What initially struck me about this recording is that it was one of the few that I always enjoy listening to from beginning to end. Many albums in my collection have one or a few cuts that I find interesting and/or enjoyable, but over the years I’ve noticed that there are only a relative few that I want to repeatedly hear in their entirety.

As I was pondering the reasons for my attraction to this album, both at the time of its issuance and retrospectively some 50 years later, it came to me that I also like the album for its consistency and continuity.

All of these factors may ultimately be due to what is denoted on the album cover: “Compositions by J.J. Johnson, Arrangements by J.J. Johnson and Conducted by J.J. Johnson.”

This recording was my first exposure to J.J.’s writing skills and they are considerable.

Recorded in 1960, J.J.’s songs and arrangements on J.J. Inc. incorporated many of the musical sensibilities that were relatively new to the music at that time such as modal Jazz, adding blues and gospel inflections to bebop, odd time signatures [i.e.: other than 4/4 time] and unusual or ‘exotic’ sounding minor key harmonies.

And then there are the magnificent musicians who perform on the date, many if not all of them relatively new on the Jazz scene at that time including a fiery and technically monstrous Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Clifford Jordan’s bel canto singing tone on tenor saxophone and Cedar Walton’s perfectly dotted eight-note phrasing and extended, lyrical improvisations on piano; all held together by Arthur Harper’s strong bass lines and Albert “Tootie” Heath crackling and incessantly, driving drumming.

If you are looking for a masterpiece, one that will keep you engrossed and enthralled for 70+ minutes, then look no farther as it’s all here whether it be the classic execution of the blues in two versions [short & long] of Fatback whose line is enhanced by Tootie’s use of 6/8 triplets on the cymbal with backbeats on the snare on “2” and “4;” or Clifford Jordan’s surprise take-over from Freddie Hubbard in the middle of his solo on In Walked Horace [need I say more about the style of this composition?]; or the vamp that holds Minor Mist together as it alternates between two minor chords before it releases each soloist into a medium walking groove; or the Milestones-inspired Shutterbug; or the easy way the soloists glide over the 3/4 time signature of Mohawk and the 12/8 time signature of Aquarius making them sound anything but “odd.”

And the CD adds three more tracks by J.J. and this brilliant group of “Young Turks” in the form of Blue ‘N Boogie” by Dizzy Gillespie, in which J.J. trades “12’s,” “8’s,” “4’s,” “2's,” and “1’s” at a lightning fast clip with "Tootie" Heath before beginning his own glorious solo,  a 13 minute version of Turnpike [a 32 bar AABA tune by J.J., based on “I Got Rhythm" changes that are altered to include the then-atypical, minor key harmonies], and the extended version of Fatback.

But don’t just take my word for it, here are the highly regarded trombonist Steve Turre’s impressions of the album.

“When I first heard a J.J. Johnson recording as a high school student, my initial reaction was one of amazement, energy, emotion, inspiration and a little disbelief!

I didn’t know it was possible to play the trombone on that level – with the technical fluidity and clarity of a sax or a trumpet – with the kind of sound possessed by the best symphonic players – with a unique conception as an improviser marked by melodic invention, harmonic sophistication, unbelievable rhythm acuity and emotional warmth based on the blues.

I was immediately converted to this new school of trombone playing and, as a young practitioner of the instrument, quickly found out that it was a lot harder to play this way than one could even imagine!

J.J. made it sound so easy, and upon seeing him in person, he made it look easy, too!

After buying every one of his recordings I could get my hands on, I sound found out
that there was so much more to his music than just a trombone player without peer.

He is as talented an arranger and composer as he is a trombonist. As a band leader, his ability to pick the right players to get the chemistry happening at the highest level and set a personal direction in the music is a gift possessed by few. When J. J. puts a band together, one hears the majestic sound of the trombone front and center. There is no doubt about it—the SOUND of his horn commands your attention as he tells his story!

J.J. INC. finds the master in a sextet setting, with an incredible line-up of young talent. A young Freddie Hubbard—before he joined Art Blakey—gives us a taste of the immense talent that he went on to develop into innovation and stardom. Likewise, a young Cedar Walton—also pre-Art Blakey—shows the promise of the innovator he became with his marvelous ensemble/accompaniment as well as his masterfully construct­ed solos. Even at an early age, Cedar is the consummate team player! Tootie Heath—from the famous family of the Heath Brothers—is smokin', playing with the fire and dynamic subtle­ty that he is known for. The wonderful tenor sax of Clifford Jordan adds a unique voice. Clifford went on to become one of the mainstays of the New York scene, playing with all the greats. Bassist Arthur Harper supplies a solid bottom with a big sound.

J.J.'s affinity to the blues is all over this recording. Mohawk is a minor blues in 3/4; Fatback is a straight ahead, funky blues in F with a slick head that gives us a classic solo by J.J.; Shutterbug is a 20 bar form that is a variation on a minor blues, and Blue N' Boogie is another up tempo blues written by Dizzy, with lots of fireworks from J.J.!

Another form closely associated with the blues is "Rhythm Changes." In Walked Horace is medium tem­po and Turnpike is up tempo and both are written on "Rhythm Changes." You can hear more blues in J.J.'s solos than in his younger bandmates, and that depth of feeling is always appar­ent in whatever he plays, whenever he plays. J.J. said that this was one of the best groups he ever put together, and he enjoyed playing with them very much. That joy is apparent!

Two tracks stand out as "compositions" rather than "tunes." Minor Mist is a beautiful melody woven by J.J. in and out of the ensemble—it showcases his beautiful tone—and there is some great brush work by Tootie. Aquarius is almost orchestral the way it is put together, with the trumpet/trombone unison melody going against the tenor sax/piano counterpoint. The interlude is very contrapuntal as well. The mood of the piece is exotic with drums playing mallets on the tom-toms.

There are many wonderful trombone players in America's clas­sical music – jazz - and they have different areas of excellence that they bring to the music. The profundity of J.J. Johnson is that he is totally balanced in all areas-as a trombonist, as a musician and as a beautiful human being. (What you are as a person comes out of the horn in the music!) He has no one area of excellence - at the expense of other areas. He has range-both high and low, a huge sound, a flawless attack, dynamics, speed, swing and soul, and yet all these great powers are only used to serve the music. They are never used superficially for their own sake. He did for the trombone what Charlie Parker did for the saxophone. He brought the trombone into the modern world with a unique conception that affected all those who came after him and set the standard that is yet to be matched. He is still "Chairman of the Board" and I love him and thank him for all the beautiful music, inspiration and guidance.

Steve Turre
New York, May 1997