Jeff Johnson, “Tall Stranger”
Origin Records 82518
by Larry Cosentino, Signal To Noise
Jeff Johnson, “Tall Stranger”
by Adam Greenberg, All Music Guide
Jeff Johnson, “Tall Stranger”
by Peter Monaghan, Earshot Jazz
These are three superbly exploratory players. Mintz is a drummer like no other – he measures his attack as if determined to bruise no drumhead unless absolutely necessary; he caresses the cymbals and skins, alike, as if seeking their permission to leave any but the most modest impression; he keeps time among four limbs like an octopus seeks out its dinner with eight.
His variety of subtlety provides the perfect counterpart to Johnson’s minutely gauged range of force and effects, and Teuber’s similar approach to tenor sax and bass clarinet. Both players, like Mintz, seem to consider every note, every phrase, and to convey, through reserve, a wealth of emotion and ideation. Together, the trio maintains a mystery – a quiet command and majesty – that is truly impressive. This is world-class jazz of an idiosyncratic, unpredictable variety, and Tall Stranger certainly must rate in any best-of-2008 consideration.
Jeff Johnson, “Tall Stranger”
by Doug Simpson, Audiophile Audition
Seattle’s jazz scene is not well known for music that strays from a melodically mainstream focus. Emerald city bassist Jeff Johnson, though, has been producing challenging music that courses from avant-garde to stripped-down European-tinted free jazz, and his fourth album, Tall Stranger, finds the composer/player once again presenting liberating, sparse forms that stress trio improvisation.
Johnson is expertly abetted by friend and Seattleite Hans Teuber, who is no outsider to imaginative outpourings (although, like Johnson, he’s also worked within traditional jazz settings) and drummer Billy Mintz, who has performed with similarly aligned artists such as Vinny Golia and Charles Lloyd.
The nine-track, almost hour-long outing is firmly explorative, with the trio searching for and generating spontaneous results instead of strict melodic or harmonic elements. Sometimes it seems as if the three players are communicating in a reserved, disconnected manner, but this approach is not unintentional. The proceedings are set up so each instrumentalist can follow his muse or musical impulse, but the musicians never wander far from each other’s differing directions, constantly encouraging themselves and their fellow trio members.
The opening track, “Patience,” could serve as the record’s invocational main theme, since Johnson’s multi-tiered mise en scène is determinedly and correspondingly paced throughout the rest of the material, even when events elsewhere sometimes ignite and shower sonic embers. Here, as on the other pieces, the bass is in the forefront, allowing Johnson to widen his scope, while the closely mic’ed recording imparts a minutely-detailed and precise sound. Listeners can actually hear the woody resonation of the bass contributing to the overall tonality.
There are several geographical motifs. The myth-laden “Pegasus in Harlem” has a primal vitality, where one of Johnson’s solo undertakings is matched by Teuber’s lower-register sax notes. “Pegasus in Harlem” is followed by the only cover, the Skeeter Davis country hit “(The) End of the World,” where one musical epiphany is proceeded by another musical epiphany and so on. Anyone acquainted with the plaintive original, though, will discover the threesome quickly dispenses with familiarity, subverting and pulling away the song’s structure. This is one of the best examples on Tall Stranger of tossing out expectations, and letting the music take one wherever the path leads. Johnson, in particular, is awe inspiring, specially when he scrapes his bow across the strings, seemingly bent on lashing apart his instrument bit by bit.
“Paris” also has a kind of playfulness that kindles a kinetic joie de vivre comparable to that found on “Pegasus in Harlem.” For instance, the tune could comfortably have been used to underscore the ménage à trois in François Truffaut’s classic film Jules and Jim.
The nearly nine-minute title track is also cinematic in space and perception. Teuber provides a potent and nomadic tenor sax line, while Mintz and Johnson pursue rhythmic statements that intertwine and enhance the composition’s diverse nature. About two-thirds through, Teuber drops out and Johnson and Mintz embrace the tune’s cardiac center, reducing the core to its very essence.
On the final cut, the melancholic “Texas,” Johnson switches to bluesy electric guitar, while Teuber tackles the double bass. The vista-inspired elegy has a Bill Frisell-styled arrangement, liquid but also at times dissonant. Without any horn, the elemental vamp becomes concentrated on Johnson’s syncopated, unadorned six-string course. “Texas” is an inverse contrast from the other pieces, but no less adventurous.
Tall Stranger is not a conventional free jazz trip, although it does apply a free jazz methodology. But it’s also not a traditional jazz voyage, despite some related design aspects. Tall Stranger is one of those rare projects that defies easy categorization, with the consequence that it offers its audience something more stimulating than even Seattle’s more famous caffeinated exports. On the technical side, Tall Stranger is a resolutely recorded production that audiophiles will also appreciate. Engineer Charles Tomaras captures every auditory shade, including when Teuber barely breathes down his reed, or Mintz’s inflected, subtle brush work on his snare drum, not to mention all of Johnson’s deeply etched bass reverberations. It is hard to imagine that this set of songs would fare equally well in a loud jazz club. ****1/2
Jeff Johnson, “Tall Stranger”
by John Barron, All About Jazz.com
The trio converses in a confident, unhurried manner throughout the disc. Teuber’s breathy, warm tone on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet complements Johnson’s deep, woody growl and Mintz’s subdued, contrapuntal approach. Together, the three create musical lines that intertwine and enhance each other’s point of view.
The title of the opening track, “Patience,” could serve as a mantra for the trio’s collective concept. Even during moments of heightened intensity in “Pegasus in Harlem” and “Sabishii,” the story-telling is seemingly deliberate and paced accordingly.
Teuber’s “They Did What To You?” is one of the disc’s more groove-oriented tracks, featuring bluesy lines and soulful double-stops from Johnson. Here, Teuber dances light-as-air around Mintz’s swirling ride cymbal pattern. “Sabishii” is used by Johnson as an opportunity to apply unconventional bowing technique, harnessing an array of emotional display. The disc closes with “Texas,” a simplified vamp that finds Teuber thumping upright bass while Johnson maneuvers impressively, with a blues-inflected twang on electric guitar.
Tall Stranger is a stop-you-in-your-tracks kind of recording. The combined musicianship is boundless, wholehearted and unselfish.
Origin Records 82518
Double Bassist Magazine (UK) Spring 2005 Issue #32
reviewed by bassist Jeff Campbell
Origin Records 82499
Double bassist Jeff Johnson and his associates here present music that is both “in” and “for” the moment.This is not casual music, but it is music that demands to be heard. These three improvisers work as a unified team to create a sound that will both surprise and satisfy the discerning listener. A quote from Johnson in the liner notes gives some indication of the trio’s direction:’What is the signal that makes a flock of birds or school of fish change directions and speed instantaneously? Learned telepathy, like minded, or informed instincts? I don’t know, but this is how we play and this is the domain we explore’.
Of the ten tracks on the disc two are standards, three are Johnson originals, and the remainder were instantaneously ‘composed’ by the trio. It is often the case that freely improvised music is more rewarding for the player than the listener. Such is not the case here, where each improvisational excursion contains a substantial amount of material that expresses a clear musical intent. The trio approach the two standards on the disc (“Dream” and “The Good Life”) and Johnson’s original compositions with similar vision.
In every context Johnson’s bass playing provides compelling support and a strong melodic line. He has at his disposal an arsenal of modern double bass techniques that he never uses for gratuitous effect. Instead, he weaves his linear conversational ideas into the fabric of the music and takes advantage of the absence of any chordal instrument in the trio to explore a myriad of textures- from double-and triple-stops, strummed chords, ostinato grooves, and harmonics.
This may not be casual music, but it is accessible and musically satisfying. Recommended.
JEFF JOHNSON: “THE ART OF FALLING”
Jazz Times Magazine, April 2002, Reviewed by Harvey Pekar
Jeff Johnson is a skilled, big toned musical bassist who has worked with Chet Baker, Billy Hart, Bud Shank, and Charlie Rouse. On the Art of Falling he’s in a quartet setting with saxman Hans Teuber, drummer Billy Mintz, and pianist Randy Porter.
This is a very open, airy date. Johnson concentrates on playing counter lines rather than stating the beat and Mintz functions more as a colorist than timekeeper.
Teuber impresses with his alto efforts. He’s melodic, inventive, and has a pure, sweet tone, reminiscent of the work of early Lee Konitz, Paul Desmond and Belly Drewes. Porter, a lyrical economical player has a style that rooted in the Bill Evans approach, but he’s worked out an individual variant on it.
As impressive as these musicians are individually the whole is even greater than the sum of the parts due to their wonderful interplay.
Everyone gets a chance to say what he wants to say and no one steps on a bandmates’s toes. The collective improvising here is about as good as it gets.
JEFF JOHNSON: “FREE” by Doug Ramsey, JAZZTIMES, May 2000
Bassist Johnson is admired for his work with modern mainstream musicians like pianists Jessica Williams, Hal Galper and Jack Brownlow.
Here in a different milieu, he has produced the quietest far-out album I’ve ever heard.
Johnson frees himself for unfettered explorations with soprano and tenor saxophonist Hans Teuber and drummer Billy Mintz. The surfaces of their music are placid. Volume and dynamics levels are generally low; Mintz doesn’t break out a stick during the entire set.
…Yet the trio draws the listener into blends and layers of expressive free playing that rise out of mutual attentiveness and finely attuned musical reflexes.
In his notes, Johnson identifies “Shadow Me” as pure improvisation. The other tracks, with one exception, have the flavor and effect of free playing even when they are established with palpable melodies like that of Johnson’s rangy “Chariots for Anthony.”
Randy Weston’s “Hi Fly” is presented in allusions rather than complete exposition of the melody. The three play off its rhythmic implications more than they do its harmonies. In Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade,” Teuber plays the melody mostly straight and recognizably while Johnson weaves around and through it, and Mintz ruminates almost imperceptibly in the background. Then Johnson plays a virtuoso solo.
The respectful audience at Seattle’s Old Town Alehouse is barely detectable. It is refreshing to hear a location jazz recording that is unmarred by exhibitionist yelling and whistling.
JEFF JOHNSON, “THE ART OF FALLING”
Cadence Magazine, Sept. 2001
I’ve listened to this CD five or six times, enjoying the music more & more each time, but finding it difficult to say just what makes this a special album. It could be the intriguing combination of Billy Mintz’ economical style on the drum kit coupled with Jeff Johnson’s animated bass parts.
Then there’s the ease with which pianist Randy Porter anticipates and feeds the solos by throaty tenor saxophonist Hans Teuber. Or maybe it’s the way every member of the group is obviously listening very carefully and with scrupulous respect for the other performers.
Whatever it is, Jeff Johnson’s quartet breathes fresh life into the venerable tenor/piano/bass/drums format.
The transparent and airy quality of these live-to-two-track recordings provides each instrument with it’s own acoustic space in the mix, rendering the nuances of the ensemble’s subtle interplay readily apparent. The overall effect is senuous and engaging, as the recording conveys the feeling of actual minds and bodies producing these sounds in real time.
Five tunes are Johnson originals, and they fit in well with a pair of Henry Mancini compositions (“Slow Hot Wind,” an effective introduction to the group, and a relaxed “Mr. Lucky”) and one each by Wayne Shorter (a thoughtful and spare “Virgo”) and Pat Martino (a tender “Portrait of Diana”) that round out the program.
None of these are overplayed, and Johnson and company succeed in making them new, by adopting a zen-like approach to staying in the moment.
This quartet makes music which “says hello and goodbye in the same instant, never to return the same…,” as Johnson puts it in his brief liner note.
The Art of Falling is a simply wonderful disc, and it deserves the highest recommendation.
JEFF JOHNSON: “THE ART OF FALLING” Origin Arts (82370)
by Jason West
JAZZSTEPS, June, 2001
I like living with CDs. I like to leave them in the player for a week or two and see how they grow. I’m not worried if, at first, I don’t hear everything that’s going on. Just as long as there’s something – a few magnetic bars, a particularly fiery exchange, a pregnant moment in the music – that demands another listen.
So it is with The Art of Falling.
The phrase that hooked me comes at the hands of pianist Randy Porter, and it occurs in the middle of the 2nd track, titled “Castles.” Jeff Johnson’s original composition contains a simple melody that fluctuates enticingly between two chords. Within these chords exists a clear tonic center, and during his solo Porter sounds the tonic note repeatedly, each time offering a new and greater sense of resolution. Then the pianist hands off to Johnson, and for a few precious bars they carry the tune together, until Porter lays out and all that’s heard are the deep, resonate tones of Johnson’s bass singing softly in its element.
Last year Johnson released Free on the Origin record label, a trio recording featuring Billy Mintz and Hans Teuber. While The Art of Falling (recorded live to 2-track) is in much the same musical vein as Free, the addition of Randy Porter to the Johnson-Mintz-Teuber chemistry is significant. Porter’s piano comping provides a strong harmonic foundation for this music, which often tends to elevate on the melodic wings of Teuber’s sax and Johnson’s bass. As a soloist, Porter is soulful and intelligent. He, like the others, gives a great performance.
An important aspect of The Art of Falling is that much of the rhythm, melody and harmony is implied, especially the rhythm. A broken time feel is employed throughout, allowing space to play an even more vital role. The absence of notes creates rhythmic tension heightened by the subtle, understated character of the music.
Leading the rhythmic undercurrent is drummer Billy Mintz. His organic array of snare drum pops, cymbal pings, gurgling toms and bass drum footfalls set the tone for the entire recording. Mintz’s style is unique and his approach is unorthodox. His drumming is peaceful and yet chaotic. Akin to thesounds of Nature, it’s full of tumbles and rustles, blusters and whispers.
Teuber’s alto saxophone rides Mintz’s rhythmic current, launching and landing legato phrases. At times the horn player becomes an aviary, chirping intervallic clusters. His tone is light and breathy, reminiscent of Paul Desmond. In fact, the birdcalls of Teuber find a perfect foil in Johnson’s bold bass fiddle. Throughout the nine compositions, (five of which are original works) offered on The Art of Falling, Johnson’s tone is fat and clear. He plucks his bass strings forcefully yet with finesse. Indeed, his melodic approach sounds more like a horn in the spotlight than a bass in the shadows. And, like his music, Johnson’s spirit is benevolent, as anyone who knows him will attest.
To the novice listener, this recording may be problematic. It may sound too sparse, too broken, too free. However, to Johnson and his fellow musicians, The Art of Falling is the art of modern jazz.
JEFF JOHNSON TRIO: “FREE” Origin Arts (82370) by Dave McElfresh, JAZZ NOW 2000
In spite of the printed lineup info, this certainly doesn’t feel like an effort by only three players. Check out the thick interactions between Johnson’s bass and Teuber’s saxophone on some of the cuts and see if your head doesn’t register the heady dialogues as being the work of more than four arms.
Johnson’s a shadow boxer who doesn’t support a soloist as much as he challenges him. No wonder he’s played with the likes of Chet Baker, Julian Priester, Billy Hart, Bob Moses, Bud Shank, and Charlie Rouse. Teuber sounds like Paul Desmond with a bad attitude, which mixes well with Mintz’s heavy reliance on bass drum and Johnson’s entirely unpredictable lines. The band catapults far beyond the theme on each cut, driving deep into improvisations that sever as many ties to the theme as possible without losing complete contact; yet the far-flung interactions are much more attractive than one would think such outside material could be.
The stuff’s exceptionally high in fiber, especially for listener novices needing an introduction to the telekinesis connecting the twilight zoning members of a Jazz group like this. Johnson’s version of Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” is a brave tweaking of a classic that demonstrates what a ballad sounds like in the hands of players who improvise with aural sandpaper.
JEFF JOHNSON: “FREE” Origin Arts (82370) Chris Lunn, Victory Review, October 1999
Bass player and composer Jeff Johnson delivers a superb, relaxed, and lyrical session with Hans Tueber on saxophone and Billy Mintz on drums. This CD was recorded live at the Old Town Alehouse.
“Old Fellow” has Johnson’s big warm tone opening and then Teuber in his most lyrical wonder. Mintz gets lots of space to touch, accent, and dart in Randy Weston’s “Hi Fly.” As the 10-minute exploring develops Tueber warmly dashes, with Mintz responding, and Johnson placing counterpoint and rhythmic anchor. Lovely work.
“Shadow Me” is a trio original that shimmers with Mintz and Teuber slowing, fluttering, and delving into the mid-low talking. The delicacy, that taking-your-time, on Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” brings a whole new intimate approach to this lovely song. They literally breathe this new feel so it curls around your head and sweeps you up. They work the space and time with such grace. Very elegant approach.
Mintz wrote “Love and Beauty” with Teuber opening in wavering notes, while Johnson joins part way in on each phrase and Mintz places percussive accents. This all builds to a more exploratory feel within the same frame.
Johnson, a brilliant composer who has done a couple of ballads that Kendra Shank performs and has recorded, contributes “Chariots For Anthony” a lyrical, lightly dancing tune that Teuber just thrives in. Johnson loves ballads and standards. This is classic jazz standard writing where the artists have plenty of room to play off each other, augment, lay out, build, hand off. Composition and playing are just top notch.
Johnson is as good as bass playing gets in the Northwest and jazz lovers worldwide should find great rewards in discovering this gem of a recording.
JEFF JOHNSON: “FREE” Origin Arts (82370) John Barrett, Jr., Jazz Review, Jazz at a Glance -February 13, 2000
It’s hard to be more spontaneous than this. A live show for radio broadcast, played without benefit of rehearsal. The numbers were called from the stage, many played for the first time. (Some had never been heard by their composers!) And one piece is totally improvised, existing only that moment, then captured on tape. Apt is the drowning man on the cover; music like this is swim or fail. Most of it swims; the textures weave as soft voices react to each other. Johnson says it all: “We are listeners.”
The “Old Fellow”, I gather, is Hans Teuber; his soprano moves slowly over nervous drums. Johnson broods on wiry notes, and the brushes patter on. Teuber finds a three-note pattern, varies it nicely, then evolves to a raspy sigh. Hear the bass toughen, and a bottomless bass drum. Johnson’s turn creeps low, then plucks with a speed out of context. The parts are well formed, but they don’t exactly fit. Likewise for “Hi Fly”; bass and sax look at the theme, but not for long. It never gets fully started, and the tune becomes a study in contrast, slow reed with fast rhythm. Billy Mintz’ solo, all hollow thumps and scattering brushes, is a keeper. Then Johnson starts bowing, a rusty lament with ominous overtones. Mintz eats it up, slapping heavy with the furor starts. The solos are king on this one; the theme sounds uncertain on where it wants to go. For the rest of the album, that problem is gone.
“Shadow Me”, a free improvisation, starts with Oriental reed against delicate cymbals. When Mintz steps it up, Hans gets tougher; little shouts that pierce the air. All instruments speak, and no one leads – this is the mood. Now a surprise: “Moonlight Serenade” begins straight, Teuber lovely over strong bowing. He then scales a spooky line before repeating the theme; now Johnson walks. On this arid ground the beauty shines, the pensive sax and the faintest of drums. Jeff has his best solo, which is the sound of thought. He’ll pause on a note, move to its neighbors, play with volume ; time is suspended, while the mood remains. This is truly a conversation, and it speaks to me.
More active is “Love is Beauty”; Teuber twirls, a ballad tone in a mist of cymbals. He sounds confident, less breathy than normal. All his mates need do is follow him, which they do in many ways.If any track says, “We are listeners”, it is this one. The charge is impressive on “Chariots for Anthony.” That’s Jeff bending hard on the funk riff. While the tune is wispy, the baseline prevails, and always comes back. Teuber sounds his most reflective, and up in clarinet range. When stated the second time, the theme is strong, and matches the bass. Then Hans takes it wistful, four notes in all permutations. He flutters, he shrieks, the drums assail ; the bass is eternal. The crowd is silent. All attention is on Jeff and his solemn tapping, going astray but the riff returns. Cheer Mintz on a tumultuous finale, and relish the interplay honed to an edge. The crowd, by their attention, recognizes they have heard something.
As do you.
JEFF JOHNSON: “FREE” Origin Arts (82370) Russell Arthur Roberts, LA Jazz Scene- August 2000
Feelings can run deep in Jeff Johnson’s musical being; his harmonic acumen provides his mates, Hans Teuber (alto and soprano saxophones) and Billy Mintz (drums) , in this inviting CD, the trusting support and more, as they are captured live at Seattle’s Old Town Alehouse.
What’s so amazing- not having played as a unit before, not even a rehearsal -is that each brought a bag of tunes to the gig, some of which were never heard or played before by one member or another, yet they were able to interactively express themselves with extraordinary subtle sophistication. When thinking of a marquee jazz reference, the Jeff Johnson Trio -with its harmonic discreteness, sketched melodic lines, and cool reserve – call to mind the intimate group settings of say, Lee Konitz.
Given the threesome’s high level of rapport, it sounds as though the trio had been playing together for years. But that was not the case. They simply got together for what was to be a one-time performance with no collective forethought as to what tunes they would perform. Yeah, who in jazz would have not heard Randy Weston’s “Hi Fly,” and those and more Glenn Miller’s theme song “Moonlight Serenade?” But you’ll have to agree that it is still a feat when you hear how their collaboration fits so exquisitely.
And what about the self-describing “Shadow Me,” where they create something lovely from theoretically nothing; benefiting, of course, from their individual skills that have been honed over the years.
Well, you can easily conclude from the above description that the music is not entirely free, not even mostly, except in the spirit of improvisation. So why the album’s title? It is a nickname given to Johnson by pianist Hal Galper early in their six year now association. Galper felt that it described the contrariness in his music personality. At the same time, the handle was reinforced by what was thought to be a phonetically cute play on the second syllable of Jeffrey’s given name. So, the sobriquet stuck.
JEFF JOHNSON: “FREE” Origin Arts (82370) Frank Rubolino, Cadence, June 2000
Bassist Johnson and his trio bring freshness to improvised music on “Free” with an interesting combination of original and classic tunes. The performance was a live radio broadcast that saw Johnson straddling the center of the sound stage while reed player Teuber joined in on one end and drummer Mintz on the other. Each contributed one tune, they jointly composed another, and they used the odd combination of Glenn Miller and Randy Weston’s music for the other two selections.
Johnson is boldly up front on all of the cuts. He plays with a liberated hand yet has the tenacity to hold the session together with subtle control. Although the title indicates that freedom is the byword of the session, I was surprised by the openness of Weston’s “Hi Fly”. You will have to listen closely to catch glimpses of the familiar melody. The trio takes it out from the start and only rarely does a strain appear to lend identity to the song. The Miller/Parish mainstay “Moonlight Serenade” is more easily recognized until the trio again works its magic to transform it into a new millennium ballad. Teuber plays with quiet intensity. He improvises with zeal yet never feels the need to be domineering. His playing fits neatly into the trio concept and adds the right balance to the configuration. Whether on alto, tenor, or soprano, he builds his solos with mesmerizing agility that solidifies the group sound.
Mintz acts in a similar way. He does not become intrusive, yet his sound is an integral component of the group concept. He accentuates the playing of Teuber and complements the lead of Johnson with deftness.
Still, it is Johnson who captures your attention without being obvious. His bass lines are clear and distinct. He plays with a mystique that takes the music out of the ordinary with his inventive improvised lines, yet he maintains control at all times.
As you can tell by now, I found this trio very impressive. They work as a unit, but their individual talents are never submerged. The music is absorbing and shows the quiet possibilities available to creative artists. I will go back frequently to this one.
JEFF JOHNSON: “FREE” Origin Arts (82370) From The L.A. Times, June 29, 2000
Seattle’s busy music scene is about more than grunge. Two of the city’s most free thinking musicians, bassist Jeff Johnson and saxophonist Hans Teuber, will travel south to join beyond category drummer Billy Mintz for an evening of improvisation experiments, electrifying impressions and thoughtful musical discourse.