Some people become well-known as a result of sheer determination that overcomes their lack of natural talent; others are gifted beyond measure with talent and never become well-known except in the esoteric circle of their craft. Jeff Johnson is a poster-child for the latter. An accomplished bassist by the age of 15 in the unassuming upper Midwestern city of Minneapolis, he was a pro playing with Philly Joe Jones by the age of 20. That was the beginning of what has become a life of playing with A-list jazz musicians such as Chet Baker, Eddie Daniels, Richard Cole, Jessica Williams, and Hal Galper. He was the anchor bass player for the latter two keyboardists on 11 records between the two of them during the 1990s. Today, he is well-identified with the verdant jazz scene in his Seattle home.
While Johnson has played many a straight-ahead jazz tune over the years, when given creative license on his own work, he drifts into free jazz, or what might be better called open improvisation. This is music that cuts itself loose from conventional meter, melody, and harmonic patterns. It both allows and demands much of the musicians, as they have no solid scaffolding to hold them up. They only have each other and a loose sense of direction. And while all of the musicians are free, it must feel especially so to the rhythm section voices of bass and drums, who are counted on in conventional jazz to be that very scaffolding.
The interplay among Johnson, Hans Tueber on reeds, and Billy Mintz on drums is fascinating on at least two levels: first, just marveling at how they are listening and reacting to one another; and second, trying to get inside their heads to understand what they are thinking and hearing. Tueber in particular likes to use themes, motifs, and riffs to build his layers, while Johnson seems to rarely repeat himself. Mintz is mostly adding textures and ornamentation; for example in the opening track, "Patience," Mintz seems to take the song title literally, playing very little; but in the second track, "Paris," he is active on the cymbals and snare throughout.
The fifth song on the record, "They Did What To You?," is a surprise; it opens with a definite meter, a discernable bass pattern, and a melody stated by Tueber on sax. While there is a tune here, it still morphs in and out of convention, especially once the solo choruses start. Johnson gives us a nice lesson in jazz bass - dipping in and out of the recognizable bass line, giving us some big woody notes that he lets ring, running off a few fast licks, and decorating with some nice polyphonics.
The trio also gives us a macabre version of an old country western song, "The End of the World." The Skeeter Davis recording of this made it to the Billboard country hits list 1963 and its been done by many country artists since. But in this rendition, other than the opening, hyper-speed run through of the melody by Tueber, you will be hard pressed to hang on to the thread of the tune. Johnson turns the song into a background track for a horror film by attacking his bass with the bow, producing some screeching, twisting, creaking, and groaning that suggest it's not so much the end of the world, but the end of his bass.
The closer, "Texas," offers one last interesting twist: Tueber puts his sax down and picks up the double bass, and Johnson switches to electric guitar. Johnson seems to be happily exploring the instrument, discovering sounds as much as he is intentionally producing them. There are but a few hints of Texas "twang" in the piece, but perhaps enough to suggest the song title.
If you enjoy free jazz, Tall Stranger is a lovely and accessible example.