Johnson fronted a quartet for two sets (the first of which is reviewed here) as part of the Thursday Night Coffeehouse Series in Bard College’s Campus Center meal spot Down the Road. He opened up with a tuba solo on his composition entitled "Cathedral Rings". He played overtones and whistled up and into the upper register of the instrument and garnered chuckles and "woo-woo’s" from the crowd. The educator within him (he taught at the College for a semester) quizzed the mostly student audience on the first time they’d heard the tuba. One young man said that he had seen one in a big band to which Johnson popped out "Now, that’s hip!" To older folks in the audience, Johnson may be remembered for his appearance in The Band’s concert film-documentary The Last Waltz and as part of The Saturday Night Live band in the 1970’s. He appears on trumpeter Charles Tolliver’s latest Blue Note release With Love on saxophone.
Keyboardist Sumi Tonooka and percussionist Tani Tabbal joined Johnson for "Naima", played in the rubato style and spirit of the original recording by saxophonist John Coltrane. Tonooka blanketed it in lush chords as Tabbal gently added shimmers of sound from the cymbals. Adjunct faculty member bassist Ari Coleman appeared on stage just in time to put a bowed finish to the piece.
Coltrane’s "Impressions" was next and swung hard and fast. Johnson’s notes on baritone saxophone were plump and punctuated. In good taste, Tonooka took her cue of playing styles on this one from McCoy Tyner, the pianist on the 1961 recording of "Impressions". Then the tune, accelerated by the rhythm section, fused onto trumpeter Miles Davis’ "So What?" for which Johnson picked up his tuba and wailed. Johnson has built part of his career and reputation on being an artist of versatility. Many brass players wouldn’t risk damaging their embouchure by doubling on reed instruments, but Johnson seems to accommodate to what the music asks for. The first set wrapped up with the group’s swinging rendition of film composer Bronislaw Kaper’s "On Green Dolphin Street".
Johnson had to do some initial conducting of this pick-up group to get it off the ground, which is to be expected. The groove kicked in soon enough. Surprisingly, the Down the Road’s dining area, adjacent to its café, has excellent acoustics and was perfect for the quartet located centrally in front of a set of windows. Maggie Carson, a part-time student, worked the sound for the evening.
The Thursday Night Coffeehouse Series is run by a Student Coordinator from the Student Activities office. At the beginning of each semester, according to Marshall Guthrie, Assistant Director of Student Activities and The Campus Center, his office along with the Student Coordinator review approximately 40-50 promotional kits. They look for a balance of genre, gender, variety and general interest. "It’s essential that artists have tracks [to listen to] and their information on their website for us to look at," Guthrie said. Once they whittle the choices to twenty, they begin making contact with selected acts for a final roster of twelve for the semester. Student Activities benefits from being within two hours of Manhattan and the other borrows of New York State where much talent abounds. In a nutshell, Guthrie, who joined Bard College last July, said that the mission of his office is "to enrich the student experience outside of class." The Bard community, even on such an icy night as this, gathered for an upbeat presentation of music to chill out to.
THURSDAY NIGHT COFFEEHOUSE SERIES