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Howard Johnson, Jazz tuba player extraordinaire, died on January 11, 2021 and we wanted to remember his passing with a re-posting of this feature of his Testimony CD. A track from the recording is featured at the end of this piece.
I must admit to not being a close follower of what Christopher Washburne labels Miscellaneous Instruments in Jazz in his chapter by the same name in Bill Kirchner, ed., The Oxford Companion to Jazz.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve recently enjoyed listening to and reviewing on these pages CD’s by violinist Tanya Schaap and the group “Tango Extremo;” likewise recent efforts by harpist Carol Taylor and harmonica player Hendrik Meurkens.
But for the most part, unless someone brings artists who play instruments to our attention that are not part of the Jazz mainstream, their contributions to the music often escape our awareness.
I mean, mention tuba player Howard Johnson to me and I’m most likely to think of Christopher Washburne description of him as a player who is “...known for his extended range and virtuosic soloing ability … and heavy grooves. His solo on Gil Evans’ arrangement of Voodoo Chili on Gil Evans Plays Hendrix [RCA] demonstrates his remarkable range and accomplished soloing ability.”
Imagine my delight then when I received a preview disc from Jim Eigo at Jazz Promo Services in which he notes that I should make a “New Year’s Resolution: Check Out Testimony, The Exciting New Album From, Brass Master Howard Johnson.”
For your information, Howard Johnson And Gravity Testimony (Tuscarora Records Item number 17-001 ) has a street date of March 3, 2017.
More details about Howard and the background to both Gravity and the forthcoming CD Testimony can be found in the following insert notes by Elzy Kolb.
“By 2006, when the New York Times' critic Nate Chinen declared Howard Johnson "the figure most responsible for the tuba's current status as a full-fledged jazz voice," the life's work of the multi-instrumentalist had been in progress for more than four decades. At 75, Johnson (born Aug. 7, 1941) has been burning with the fire of bass-clef innovation since well before 1963, when he took an offhand remark from Eric Dolphy as a call to action to move to New York.
As a teen, Johnson had discovered that he could push the tuba's range to previously unheard heights, surpassing the trombone and edging into trumpet territory. He is no novelty act, occasionally blasting notes into the stratosphere to excite an audience; Johnson plays melody lines and solos fluidly and fluently, maintaining tonal integrity and feeling.
Though there was no existing repertoire in the early 1960s for his then-groundbreaking low-brass range, once in the Big Apple Johnson caught the ear — and piqued the imagination — of Charles Mingus. The iconic bassist/composer wrote such adventurous parts for him, that "even trombonists wouldn't welcome seeing those notes on the page," the multi-instrumentalist says. Johnson became the muse of other composers, including Gil Evans and Carla Bley, establishing relationships lasting decades. He always soared to the occasion, overjoyed by challenges.
Every post-Johnson tuba player has been measured by the standard he set. He believes the instrument is capable of a virtually unlimited sonic and emotional range, based on a player's abilities. By demonstrating his skills, Johnson single-handedly moved the instrument out of its traditional place in the rhythm sections of large ensembles into featured roles in small bands.
He influenced musicians by expanding their ideas of the possibilities of the instrument, and showed enormous generosity of spirit, mentoring tuba players, past, present and future. He influenced jazz (and pop) composers and arrangers by bringing a heretofore ignored instrument to the front line of soloists, and changed jazz overall by altering the direction of how jazz used the bass clef — no more oompah-pah, but pure linear bop, swing and rock phrasing that could stand on its own against any "typical" jazz solo instrument.
At a time when jazz-rock fusion was gaining traction, Johnson opened up the music without diluting the tradition, performing with an unwavering jazz sensibility as a founding member of the Saturday Night Live Band. His writing, arranging and playing captured the attention and imagination of pop culture icons such as John Lennon, Paul Simon, Levon Helm and Taj Mahal; Johnson has never dumbed it down, never resorted to spoon-feeding anyone "Jazz 101" level music. He has always been "The Real Thing," as Taj Mahal dubbed the 1971 album that debuted Johnson's innovative multi-tuba brass choir, Gravity.
To this day, Johnson declares that he still burns to play, still has fire in his belly to solo, to increase awareness of the versatility of often-underutilized horns, and to continue to have his say on the definitive way to play them.
This CD proves he's still more than up to the challenge. - Elzy Kolb”
Jim Eigo - www.jazzpromoservices.com - send along the following media release after which you’ll find a video montage set to Howard Johnson’s and Gravity version of Way Back Home from the upcoming Testimony CD.
“Internationally acclaimed multi-instrumentalist and veteran sideman Howard Johnson takes a turn in the spotlight with a new release, Testimony, recorded with his 10-piece tuba choir, Gravity.
Testimony includes eight tunes ranging from soulful to funky to bluesy to cookers. Gravity’s take on Johnson’s originals as well as compositions by McCoy Tyner, Carol King, and others, testifies to the range and versatility of the tuba.
Over the past half century, Howard Johnson, the eminence grise of low brass, has appeared on hundreds of albums playing tuba, baritone sax, bass clarinet, electric bass and other instruments with the giants of many genres. The New York Times’ critic Nate Chinen credits Johnson as “the figure most responsible for the tuba’s current status as a full-fledged jazz voice.” With Testimony, his third recording with Gravity (and his fourth as a leader) Johnson takes a giant step forward in making the music world safe for tubas and low brass, delighting—and enlightening—listeners in the process.
After arriving in New York in the early ’60s, Johnson appeared with Jack DeJohnette, Abdullah Ibrahim, Lou Rawls, Lee Morgan, Chick Corea, John Lennon, The Band, Paul Simon, Tony Williams, Pharoah Sanders, Hank Mobley, The Saturday Night Live Band, Gato Barbieri, Levon Helm, and literally hundreds of others.
Johnson was also a long-time muse to innovators such as Charles Mingus, Gil Evans, Carla Bley, and George Gruntz, who created music to showcase the multi-instrumentalist’s abilities, and inspired him on his life-long quest to expand the range and repertoire for some of the less familiar instruments in jazz and popular music. Bluesman Taj Mahal helped to spread the word when he invited Johnson and his tuba cohorts to tour and to record with him in 1971. The resulting album, The Real Thing, features Johnson’s brass arrangements and Gravity stalwarts Joseph Daley, Earl McIntyre and Bob Stewart, who also appear on Testimony.
In addition to Johnson on tuba, pennywhistle, and baritone sax, Testimony includes:
Dave Bargeron (tuba), a self-described “proud charter member of Gravity since 1968.” He has played with Blood, Sweat and Tears, big bands led by Clark Terry, Gil Evans, George Russell, George Gruntz, and Jaco Pastorius, and countless smaller ensembles.
Velvet Brown (tuba), the Penn State professor of tuba and euphonium, is equally at home with the St. Louis Symphony, the New Hampshire Music Festival Orchestra, or the San Francisco Women’s Philharmonic Orchestra.
Joseph Daley (tuba) is the producer of Testimony and a mainstay of New York’s adventurous music scene, having played with the likes of Sam Rivers, Carla Bley, Gil Evans, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and Hazmat Modine.
Carlton Holmes (keyboards) is a top pick of icons like Charli Persip, Cindy Blackman-Santana, Michael Carvin, Freddie Hubbard, Stevie Wonder, and many others.
Nedra Johnson (tuba, vocal) has one of the most powerful and compelling voices you’re likely to hear. Whether playing jazz, woman’s music, funk, or R&B, she’s known for bringing festival crowds to their feet.
Earl McIntyre (tuba) is a renowned educator, Brooklyn Philharmonic guest conductor. An in-demand bass trombonist as well, he is an alumnus of bands fronted by Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, Lester Bowie, McCoy Tyner, and others.
Melissa Slocum (bass) is an in-demand veteran of stints with Art Blakey, Leon Thomas, Hank Jones, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Melba Liston. She also shines in settings from symphony to Broadway to baroque.
Bob Stewart (tuba) has worked with the mainstream (Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis), the avant-garde (Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, Arthur Blythe), and the hit makers (Chaka Khan, Dap Kings, Aretha Franklin).
Buddy Williams (drummer) has a list of credits encompassing Valerie Simpson, Sonny Sharrock, Jack McDuff, Jennifer Holiday, Michael Jackson, Herbie Mann, Lena Horne, and David Sanborn.
Album highlights include:
“Testimony”: This 1990 Howard Johnson original is a cooker that testifies to the power and versatility of the tuba, and puts the listener on notice as to what’s to come.
“Workin’ Hard for the Joneses”: Forget keepin’ up with the Joneses! Nedra Johnson’s original is a reminder that addictions, including love, can come at a hefty cost.
“Fly With the Wind”: This Howard Johnson arrangement of a too-rarely heard McCoy Tyner composition proves how nimble and versatile a tuba choir can be: Tubas can indeed fly with the wind!
“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”: A 1968 Howard Johnson arrangement of the Carole King classic, inspired by Aretha Franklin’s hit version. Besides her brilliant lead work throughout the CD, Velvet Brown’s solo here shows truly authentic command and grace.
“High Priest”: McCoy Tyner’s tribute to Thelonious Monk, the high priest of jazz. From the jaggedness of the melody to the signature lope in the rhythm, Gravity captures what’s best about both McCoy and Monk. Listen up for a brilliant solo from bassist Melissa Slocum.
“Little Black Lucille”: Johnson brings the pennywhistle to the fore with his lilting original folk tune. It’s a tender tribute to his Aunt Lucille, who overcame the privation of her early years to build a loving family.
“Evolution”: A Bob Neloms composition Johnson learned at 18—Neloms was two years younger. “I really liked the rhythm and the hipness of the blues. I’m the only person who plays it, and Bob doesn’t remember writing it,” Howard recalls, laughing.
“Way Back Home”: Penned by saxophonist/bassist/Jazz Crusader Wilton Felder, Johnson wrote an arrangement of this soulful crowd-pleaser for The Saturday Night Live Band, as well as this one for Gravity. “We recently lost Wilton, and we will not forget him,” Howard declares. Full of mellow, rich harmonies, its subtlety challenges preconceptions about the role of low brass in jazz.
Howard Johnson has made it his life’s work to “reveal the range and versatility of the tuba in all its splendor” to a larger audience. With its vibrant spirit and swing, Testimony makes a strong case for repeated listening.
Howard Johnson And Gravity Testimony
(Tuscarora Records Item number 17-001 )
Street Date: March 3, 2017
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