Russ Johnson | Constellation | Jazz | Chicago Reader
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Russ Johnson

Russ Johnson

Courtesy the artist

Russ Johnson 18+ Recommended Soundboard

When: Fri., May 23, 9 p.m. 2014
Price: $10
Trumpeter Russ Johnson, who grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, moved to Milwaukee in 2011 to take a teaching gig at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha after two decades in New York—and the Chicago jazz scene has benefited hugely from his proximity. He performs here far more often than he does in Milwaukee, and this week he's celebrating the release of Meeting Point (Relay), his first recording with local players—as well as his first album as a leader in a decade (not counting In Circles, a 2012 date where he shared leadership with Swiss reedist Co Streiff). Johnson made the new album with his working Chicago quartet—bass clarinetist Jason Stein, bassist Anton Hatwich, and drummer Tim Daisy—and it captures a side of his sound that seems to have arisen from his relationships here. Compared to his previous studio work, Meeting Point is more open, improvisational, and rhythmically driving, with less reliance on form. Daisy plays like a beast, pushing the group hard with off-kilter funk beats and coloristic splatters, while Stein acts as an extroverted, high-energy front-line foil, countering Johnson's plush melodies with constellations of astringent upper-register sound. On the second section of the tripartite "Confluence," Johnson and Stein take turns playing long, improvised abstractions, propelled largely by Daisy, and in the final section the full band comes together, cohering around Johnson's elegant, durable theme until the piece rides out on a raucous drum solo. The album also includes intimate improvised duets between Johnson and various bandmates, but for me the most satisfying moments are when the trumpeter makes his postbop roots especially audible—on the hard-swinging "Clothesline," for instance, he and Stein intertwine improvised lines with propulsive buoyance and tunefulness. Taken as a whole, Meeting Point reveals many new facets of Johnson's playing that he's developed since he moved back to the midwest—and new ones keep emerging at his frequent live gigs. I'm looking forward to more. —Peter Margasak


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