Max Johnson Trio — Orbit of Sound (Unbroken Sounds, 2022)
I pick up a comforting late-night vibe on Orbit of Sound. Maybe it’s the way the improvisations build around a earthy sax-bass-drums conversation, or the rich intensity of Anna Webber’s flute on “Too Much Tuna” (excerpt below) — or maybe it’s just the placement of Max Johnson‘s bass in the mix.
On this 2021 live recording, bandleader and composer Johnson often takes the lead in defining melodies, whether composed or improvised. His bass is up-front with the other instruments, carried with volume (both literal and figurative), delivering propulsion without sounding hurried or heavy-handed. For me, the prevailing image is of an intimate space where the musical creativity is flowing strongly as the city outside winds down.
Orbit of Sound documents a trio that was founded in 2018 and had nearly competed a European tour in 2020 when pandemic restrictions struck. (They got another stab at Europe earlier this year.) Anna Webber, fresh off some successful albums with Pi Recordings and an invigorating big-band release co-led with Angela Morris, plays tenor sax and flute. On drums is Michael Sarin, who’s been on the scene for decades in settings like the Thomas Chapin Trio and Myra Melford’s The Same River Twice. Sarin and Johnson teamed up at least one other time that I know of, backing pianist Simon Nabatov on the crackling album Free Reservoir (Leo Records, 2017).
Combining Johnson’s compositions with well balanced improvising, the band explores broadly while maintaining a loose sense of groove. “Over/Under” features an percolating Johnson solo, backed in a steady rhythm by Sarin, that’s just sublime and becomes stronger when Webber finally joins in. Then there are the experimental stretches — arid expanses that revel in silence and concentration before building back into Johnson’s compositional structure.
You can catch Johnson in other contexts on June 20 at Roulette. The program, which Roulette will livestream for free, consists of Johnson’s classical compositions followed by a performance with a three-sax quintet.