Russ Johnson — Meeting Point (Relay Recordings, 2014)
Meeting Point is a modern compositional showcase for trumpeter Russ Johnson, fleshed out by Chicago free-jazz stalwarts, but it’s also got some flavor of a good old bebop quartet. “Clothesline” could serve as a statement-of-purpose, a swingy and unhurried number that sets up some cracking solos from Johnson and bass clarinetist Jason Stein. “Chaos Theory” is a similarly tumbling bop, with a theme that takes a while to play out, making for a fun ride.
What struck me first, though, was the simple, chugging beat of the bass clarinet on “Lithosphere.” It lends a trace of old-timey jazz stomp to an otherwise contemporary sounding composition. Just a trace. You might not hear it, but it helped cement that feeling of past-meets-present in my mind.
This isn’t a retro album, though. Stein, Anton Hatwich (bass), and Tim Daisy (drums) are fixtures of the Chicago free-jazz scene, and Johnson astutely uses their talents in crafting longer-form pieces and in outright burning it up when it comes time for solos. “Chaos Theory” appropriately shifts into a group exploration before Stein gets to cut loose on bass clarinet (which he plays throughout the album), augmented by Johnson’s bleats and burbles, and egged on by Hatwich and Daisy in free-bop mode.
Each player also gets an improvised duo track with Johnson — abstract short pieces tending toward the subtle side. That’s especially true on the duo with Stein, which plays with long tones and Feldmanesque quiet.
Early on in the album, however, Johnson deviated from the more “obvious” jazz fun to present “Confluence,” a 15-minute suite that’s effectively the second track. I enjoy it, but it’s a character from a different novel: studious and involved. It opens with an introspective solo by Johnson, setting up a quiet energy. That gives way to the theme: a simple, jazzy figure that touches off a lengthy bass clarinet solo where Stein ultimately heads into buzzy multiphonic territory.
It’s nice stuff, and when the simple theme re-emerges at the end, emerging from a stormy group tumult, you feel like you’ve completed quite a nice little journey. For the listeners preferring the swingy side of the music, “Confluence” might be an impediment. I like to think of it more as Johnson astutely making the most out of his resources — in terms of his composing skills and his choices of bandmates.
Read more about Russ Johnson in The Reader, published by the Chicago Sun-Times.