Trumpeter Russ Johnson dances along a fine line | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Trumpeter Russ Johnson dances along a fine line 

The Wisconsin composer and bandleader strikes a perfect balance between mainstream and vanguard.

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Russ Johnson - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Russ Johnson
  • Courtesy the artist

Russ Johnson walks the line. "There's a saying: 'Too in for the out crowd, too out for the in crowd,'" says the Wisconsin-based trumpeter. "In some respects, this describes my career."

For certain listeners, I suppose that may be true. But to my ears, Johnson's music is a perfect melding of the mainstream and the vanguard. Like Baby Bear's bed—not too soft, not too hard, it sounds just right.


Russ Johnson Quartet
Sun 9/1, 1:50-2:45 PM, Von Freeman Pavilion


In the mid-1980s, having just left Berklee College of Music, the young Johnson dug into traditional jazz, working hard to master its rudiments and conventions. He did everything right: he moved to New York, developed a network, gigged incessantly, and established himself as a go-to session player and sideman. He even finished his studies, earning a bachelor's degree at Manhattan School of Music in 1997 and following it with a master's a few years later. One listen to his playing—the crisp, ringing tone, the darting melodies, the thoughtful and complex understanding of rhythm, the harmonic sophistication of his improvising—and you'll hear what he gleaned. You might start with any of the records he's appeared on with heavies such as Lee Konitz and Steve Swallow, but his discography is large, varied, and consistently solid.

Something complicated Johnson's mainstream jazz upbringing, though. "In my later 20s, I became interested in the free-music scenes," he says. "I realized I loved this music as much as straight-ahead jazz, and worked very diligently on studying and developing vocabulary that works in this context." A glance at Johnson's credits as a sideman confirms this commitment to the "out" side of the equation: he's recorded with the Jazz Passengers, Kris Davis, Jenny Scheinman, and Tom Varner, among dozens of other established figures in improvised music. "The bottom line is that I love both of those musics and didn't 'make a decision' to go one way or another," he explains. "I found I worked best in music that fits in the spaces of both of those worlds."

  • Russ Johnson's most recent recording as a bandleader, 2018's Headlands

Johnson reconciled these supposedly dichotomous realms during the 23 years he lived and worked in New York. In 2010, though he felt no particular desire to transplant himself, he unexpectedly landed a teaching gig as director of jazz studies at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside; the following year he uprooted his family and settled in Milwaukee. The deciding factor was a better school situation for his daughter, but the move also put Johnson back in the state of his youth—he'd grown up in Racine, and as soon as he had a driver's license, he'd started to venture to Chicago for gigs.

When Johnson came back to Wisconsin as an adult, he was already aware of Chicago's burgeoning jazz and improvised-music community. Other than perhaps the New York scene, it's the one most perfectly suited to his inside/outside mind-set. "When you're living in New York, you can feel like that is the only place to be, but I quickly realized there are some heavy cats in the Chicago community," he says. "When we had to make a decision regarding my future at Parkside, the community of Chicago musicians made that choice extremely easy."

Chicago has embraced Johnson just as warmly. For nearly a decade now, he's regularly made the hour-and-a-half drive south, working with musicians from across the scene—among them brilliant alto saxophonist Greg Ward, who took a suggestion from drummer and impresario Mike Reed and tapped Johnson for his 2016 project 10 Tongues. Johnson and Ward subsequently joined a nonet led by saxophonist Geof Bradfield, along with bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Dana Hall—and when Johnson was invited to participate in this year's Chicago Jazz Festival, the players he assembled were Ward, Sommers, and Hall. He'd already been pondering that quartet lineup for a few years, and he's created a book of new pieces for it with a slightly different idea. "My goal for this project is to set up different zones for improvising rather than focus on composing," he says. "In the past, I've written long, through-composed pieces that take a lot of rehearsal. These pieces are shorter in length. I'm trying to get to the central idea of the tune and then let these master improvisers do their thing."

  • Johnson's 2014 album of Eric Dolphy tunes, Still Out to Lunch, recorded with his old New York colleagues

Johnson describes Ward as "one of the baddest musicians on the planet" and says he has "a fully formed, unique improvisational language, incredible rhythmic flexibility, and a beautiful sound." Their pairing nods to the great lineage of trumpet-alto front lines in post-chordal jazz—think Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy and Booker Little—but as Johnson enthuses about the potential of this personnel, he comes back to the yin and yang of inside/outside. "Clark Sommers and Dana Hall can play anything! They are incredibly creative," he says. "I often compose tunes that have 'open' sections or contain subtle cues to move from one area to another. Clark and Dana make these transitions in such a way that the listener has no idea we've moved from one zone to another. The music I compose will only work if there is trust that the musicians can make these seamless transitions."

Odds are they will. All of these players have made the choice to exist in a liminal place that's neither totally in nor totally out, and they've magnified their power as a result. Sommers demonstrates it on the adventurous 2013 record Ba(SH), and Hall—who'll go down as one of the all-time great Chicago musicians, period—has proved it with every one of the zillion projects he's accomplished in recent years, including his duets with saxophonist Nick Mazzarella and the overdue record from his midsize ensemble Spring.

  • The quartet Russ Johnson brings to the Jazz Festival has yet to record, but this 2014 album uses a similar configuration, with bass clarinetist Jason Stein, bassist Anton Hatwich, and drummer Tim Daisy.

Inside/outside. East coast/midwest. No problem—Johnson walks the line. And collaborating with people this strong makes him feel good about having made his big move. He can still work with his New York posse, like he does on his 2014 CD of Dolphy tunes, Still Out to Lunch. And he can invite Chicagoans, like he does on quartet record Meeting Point, released the same year. "I have absolutely no regrets about leaving New York," Johnson says. "My musical life is very full, and I am extremely happy to be a part of the Chicago community."  v

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