When making lists of the most innovative contemporary jazz musicians, many denounce what they see as pure American centrism, an inability to look beyond the shores of jazz’s homeland. What this falls short of is the tendency to confine those lists even further to New York, Chicago, and possibly one or two other major metropolitan areas. That’s where the audiences are, so that’s where the talent goes, or so the argument runs.
What bassist Jeff Johnson has provided in this swollen volume is over an hour of distinct refutation to this theory. Emerging from the Seattle area with a cast of similarly less-than-well-known improvisers, Johnson manages to endow five of his originals, along with four (somewhat) standards (two by Henry Mancini, one by Wayne Shorter, and one by Pat Martino), with a group sound that is at once delicate and intense, but always accomplished. Occasionally, it even becomes original, too.
Indeed, if starting at the group’s rendition of Wayne Shorter’s "Virgo", all of their shifting dynamics are on display. Hans Teuber peels off intricate shells of melodic invention until just barely able to kiss the outline of the melody, Johnson and drummer Billy Mintz play rhythmic dodgeball, and Randy Porter falls in between them, speeding up in order to slow down, skirting and following numerous suggestions implied in Mintz’s spacious understatements.
And it is this interplay between drummer and bassist that is most fascinating, and manages to define the group most distinctly. Mintz, clearly from the Paul Motian school of percussive choosiness, seems more to prod his drum set than to play it, picking out sound textures and intensities, but only in outline, leaving specific time-keeping roles to the bassist. He, however, rarely complies in obvious 4/4 manner, creating melodic and rhythmic push without direct statement. What results is an on-your-toes game of conversation in which listening and reacting are primary, and anything less will leave you flat on the ground with no supports.
Obviously, then, this is what Johnson means by "The Art of Falling", and thankfully he explains it well throughout the disc. But mercifully, he does it in a way that avoids cliché’s while rarely becoming obtuse. So this is what happens in the rest of the country.