Steve Turre (without the conch-shells he is elsewhere known for) pays amazing tribute to J.J. Johnson musically and in print in his new Telarc CD. Johnson appeared in the early 1940s as an outstanding trombonist in a style, which had emerged around 1930 and took on colour with the precocious work of Dicky Wells, Sandy Williams, Jay C. Higginbotham, Benny Morton, and Vic Dickenson. J.J. Johnson sounded like a potential Bill Harris, which Steve Turre has no reason to mention. By the 1950s, Johnson had performed arguably as big a transformation of style as any jazz musician ever managed successfully. The new harmonic and rhythmic language of Charlie Parker were pretty well closed to trombonists with that sort of instrumental colour. Benny Green remained on the threshold, Trummy Young essayed an almost archaic style nearly a precursor of Gary Valente, and found a home for it with Louis Armstrong’s (later only in name) All-Stars.
The scale of J.J. Johnson’s achievement can be understood better from some later 1940s recordings and reminiscences of listeners who found him in fact hard to take. One Prestige date with John Lewis and Sonny Stitt finds him not at the birth of the cool but seriously marring some items (I remember the period-titled “Teapot”), near sterilised for want of expression beyond harmonic and rhythmic precision. On an earlier 1950s session with Jimmy and Percy Heath, Clifford Brown, Lewis and Kenny Clarke, the phrasing and tone sound clipped, eccentric but successful. Probably Kai Winding’s Scandinavian background attuned his big (but otherwise older and warmer) sound to the needs of bop. It did enhance the listenabilty of the group for some, and may have done something toward Johnson’s mastery of incredible difficulties with the instrument’s harmonics. Retrospectively Johnson has also had people listening to Claude Jones, not recorded that much because his pre-Johnson tone hadn’t been what people were listening for in a 1930s stylist, just as Jimmy Knepper with Mingus was welcome to admirers of older styles. Jones wasn’t working in music when he was rediscovered in England in the 1950s, when one day out for a stroll (he was a steward on a transatlantic liner) he went into a jazz record shop. Johnson was just so very considerable a musician he had other options when fickle fashion restricted his proper career.
Which is worth adding to notes I shan’t paraphrase from Steve Turre’s CD, which enhance it. “Paying Homage” is the subtitle, but to say “Hommage” in French is to cite what has been argued can be a musical term, like “Elegie”, or indeed like “Requiem”; except that it involves an idea less easily encapsulated than lament (and Johnson’s theme “Lament” in a Slide Hampton arrangement appears here) or a performance dedicated to one no longer among us in body.
Homage can be paid to the living, with signals of deference, with an essay like Steve Turre’s notes, or some reviews probably implying a more than listener-musician relationship to whoever—as in some of Humphrey Lyttelton’s highly recommendable writings. It’s best, perhaps, if the homage is rendered by someone whose homage matters, or is visibly and really making an effort; and accorded to someone not dead, and this is really the point of this CD, which is a recording of a complex act of homage, an act made by playing Johnson’s music.
It is Johnson’s music in several ways, eight of the eleven titles being themes he composed. Another two are dedications to him: Turre’s of the title piece “One4J”, and Johnson’s sometime pianist Harold Mabern’s “Mr. Johnson” is an image of him as well as dedicated to him. “What Is This Thing Called Love” is in his arrangement, while “El Camino Real” is an Earl MacIntyre’s arrangement of Johnson’s big band arrangement (here for a five-trombone ensemble featuring Joe Alessi, who played in Johnson’s Brass Ensemble recording with some other participants on this disc, and who is Principal Trombone of the New York Philharmonic). One of the five-trombone numbers was arranged by Robin Eubanks, who is with Turre on two of the two-trombone quintet titles (Turre is partnered by Andre Hayward depping for Slide Hampton on another two, and by Hampton’s other sideman Steve Davis on a fifth). If I say which one reworks Johnson’s initial arrangement for trombone-tenor quintet there will be too many facts here, except to say that many important elements of Johnson’s music survive beyond his recordings in an entire musical orientation beyond themes notated in ink.
In the case of the ensembles here, there are not only those discoveries within the trombone which each player can realise, there is a whole area of feeling to be conveyed, an area of meaning discovered and expressed by musicians in one instrumental combination and rediscovered by others. They are playing the music which was J.J. Johnson’s, and which as uniquely gifted tradition-bearers is no less their own. It made musical sense to have Johnson’s sometime drummer Victor Lewis in a rhythm section with Peter Washington and Steven Scott (whose piano playing is standout). Another good way of carrying Johnson forward was the penultimate track, Turre duetting on Johnson’s “Enigma” with the latter’s (as Turre says) “last great pianist”, Renee Rosnes. This is almost family, or genealogy.
On the closing “Minor Blues” (Johnson’s theme), Turre appears alone with rhythm augmented by the Senegalese percussionist Abou M’Boup. Turre does his best to communicate “presence” here, the “presence” of the Johnson he stood beside, and a kind of presence whose expression his essay claims Johnson had achieved in the singing voice of his trombone. His attempt is similar in spiritual ambition to the performance of a Chopin nocturne, say, the problem being more musical than merely technical. Johnson would be proud of it, maybe even the best tribute paid him yet.