Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Russ Johnson: Meeting Point (Relay Records, 2014)

It's always exciting when I see Tim Daisy's name on a record. For me he's one of the top drummers out there on the jazz and improvised music scene. In the past few years he's started his own label and this is the twelfth release - if you include the four live recordings in the catalogue. If you don't know the label be sure to check out the back catalogue, which has some fine recordings. If you don't know Tim's playing then I suggest you take some time to listen to his past work. He's been involved in some of the most interesting contemporary jazz and improvised music projects of the past years.

This latest release is from trumpeter Russ Johnson. Johnson is a fine player who's no newcomer to the jazz and improvised music scene. If you check out his blog you'll see a fine range of projects he's been involved in. I originally saw him many years back with Michael Bates' Outside Sources, playing some gigs in Europe. Since then his name has appears regularly, either in one of his own units, with bassist Cameron Brown or the Belgian saxophonist, Robin Verheyen's NY Quartet. 

In the meanwhile, the new record from Russ Johnson Meeting Point is the eighth studio project to come out on Relay Records. On this record Russ has chosen a quartet line-up made up of: Jason Stein – bass clarinet; Anton Hatwich –bass; Tim Daisy – drums, and of course Russ – trumpet.

The album uses melody, combined with free elements, to build compositions and improvisations, giving a nice balance between the two, that make the music easily listenable, yet challenging. The first track Lithosphere is a funky piece, with bass and bass clarinet underpinning the melody in what could be either a bass-line, or counter-melody. When the solos start, the bass and drums keep the whole thing together, but, whilst the trumpet solos above, the bass clarinet punctuates below, coming in from time to time with ideas to accompany. Eventually the two wind instruments swap places, as one fades out the other steps forward. 

The other pieces constantly move between styles. Confluence tracks 2-4, are (I imagine) a sort of suite - titled: 'Introduction', 'Part I', 'Part II'. Russ Johnson leads the way using the material from Part I, developing it as a drum duet. He stays close to the melody, not tempted to use his chops, other than for dynamics. Eventually the whole band joins in and the piece takes a sort of slinky feel, looping around the bass line with Jason Stein playing some excellent bass clarinet, managing to avoid melodic clichés by searching out sounds that fit within the harmony. It's a solo bass clarinet that carries us across into the Part II, creating a dark sombre atmosphere. Russ Johnson plays a lovely rubato theme which gives the ensemble a cue to step up the volume and energy. Tim Daisy leads the way with a great drum solo which evolves out of the music, until almost from nowhere we are introduced briefly to the first theme, which fades into the background. Great piece, fine playing all round.

There are three pieces titled Conversation, (tk5 with Stein, tk7 with Hatwich, tk9 with Daily). These improvised duet pieces add a nice touch (and interlude) to the album's main tracks. Each one has something special, according to the instrumental combination.

This leaves us with Clothesline (tk6), Chaos theory (tk8) and Half Full (tk10). Chaos theory is an excellent track, starting off with an 'Ornette-ish' type theme, which develops into a wonderful rubato piece where the rhythm section and soloist play off each other, melodically and rhythmically. It has great energy, and an elastic feel which keeps you listening. And, there's some fine soloing from everyone!

The last track Half Full is a very gentle piece, again using the melody as a bass line and the basis for the improvisations. It's a great way to finish off the album. The track gradually builds up its energy as it heads towards the end, stretching the time feel like an accelerating train. This gives a sense of urgency to the track, and brings us to the end of a very satisfying album. 

The music and the group are top notch throughout, keeping you fixed to your seat. It really combines so many elements, but, it a coherent way. It's a slow burner, as I've noticed through the weeks, which is perfect, after all who wants to know a whole album straight away? 

Great album, recommended to all who enjoy swing, freedom, melody and creativity.        

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