J.J. Johnson: The Eminent, Volume One

J.J. Johnson
The Eminent, Volume One
Blue Note

When trombonist J.J. Johnson died in April of this year, the obituaries were respectful, his place in jazz history was duly acknowledged and his supremacy as a player readily admitted. Yet, as in his life, a certain distance between audience and musician was maintained. Johnson was one of those figures destined to be admired rather than loved. A reputation for coldness, for technical excellence but emotional aridity, clung to him. It is unclear where this originated. Maybe it was the accusation that he abandoned improvisation for film scoring and arrangements — unfair and unwarranted, as it happens. Perhaps it was the simple folly of marrying the complexities of bebop to the humble trombone. There is a suspicion that Johnson was regarded in some quarters as just a high-class novelty act.

Because of this, there has developed a set format in reviewing a record of his. Firstly you point out, as I have done, his reputation as an unfeeling, mechanical player and then pick the lushest ballad you can find and, holding hands aloft in mock surprise, ask how anyone could hold that view given the existence of tracks such as these. Unfortunately, much as I would like to break with this venerable tradition, faithfully repeated on this disc’s liner notes, I find I can’t. Just listen to him on “Lover Man” or “It Could Happen to You”. Robotic? I think not. So — the enigma remains. Why aren’t jazz fans fonder of Johnson?

It can’t be the company he kept. Look at this for a line up — John Lewis, Kenny Clarke, Jimmy and Percy Heath, Clifford Brown and Kenny Clarke. Each one of them automatic entries in any dictionary of modern jazz. Already, by 1953 — when this session was put on wax — these were legends. Even without Johnson this has Premium Quality stamped all over it. Nor can it be the material. Apart from the aforementioned standard slowies, there is the reliable workhorse “Get Happy”, connoisseur’s favourite Gigi Gryce’s “Capri” and one composition each by Johnson and the professorial Lewis. Take it from me, The Eminent is as satisfying as all that suggests.

Now reissued in its entirety, it comprises six numbers plus three outtakes. Originally released as a ten inch album, the whole affair is only 38 minutes long and is therefore probably aimed at the aficionados rather than the general audience. Actually, there is more than enough magic to appeal to both constituencies. Representing the tail end of the Parker-Gillespie revolution, this (and two other follow-up sets) may even have been one of the last of the great bebop enterprises. The new language was by then firmly in place and the disciples were starting to find their own distinctive voices. It is interesting to hear the different participants frozen at a particular stage in their career. Some can be heard here in their classic incarnation (Dorham — and Johnson himself), some already had veteran status (Clarke), one was still struggling to emerge from Parker’s shadow (Jimmy Heath) and one (Lewis) was partially making his farewell bow to bop before moving off to the more contemplative waters of the MJQ. Each appears to have recognised the importance of this opportunity and played close to their very best.

For Johnson, especially, this was a landmark occasion. It was something of a comeback session for him as he had half-abandoned music for a steadier day job. Bluenote, as it was prone to do in these years, was allowing what was almost a last shot. It is no wonder then that he shines even in such glistening surroundings. His solos on “Capri” and his own tune, “Turnpike”, really are ridiculously expert. You have to keep reminding yourself that this is a trombone and not a valve or keyed instrument. His easy authority on the slower tempos confirm that this one is certainly his date. The length-restricted, almost “single” formats suit the logic and precision of his playing. Johnson was never one for excess, under any banner, but these relatively short tracks show a sense of concentrated purpose that still impresses.

Something similar can be said of Lewis’ piano. What will strike those familiar with his later work is the robustness and controlled power of his solo and ensemble work. “Lively” is not a word always associated with the man who was to take the Modern Jazz Quartet on a successful but rather reserved 25 year journey, but here he positively flies over the keys. Next to Johnson he is the pick of the team and his own composition, “Sketch No.1” is the most imaginative on the disc. Dorham is solid, but only on “Get Happy” does he truly show the most endearing side of his trumpet sound. Playing rapid notes clearly as a bell and with a roundness of tone, he takes up the baton from Fats Navarro and forms a bridge between those formative bebop years and the less frenetic but funkier hard bop and soul jazz of the late ’50s.

The Heath brothers, stalwarts of the Philly jazz scene, are as unfussedly impressive as ever. Jimmy, still “Little Bird” then, is happiest when he lets the bluesier side of his tenor run free, on “Sketch” for example, but the pair are most effective as ensemble players. As, of course, is Clarke who as a drummer has rather had his innovations tagged on to the more recognisable figure of Max Roach. No disrespect to Roach — the most complete percussionist of the post-war period — but Kenny was there first. Listen to his use of the cymbals — everyone has copied that. Clarke could make the briskest of tempos seem child’s play — a great spur to any soloist.

So forget what you may have read about Johnson. The Eminent is friendly, accessible and awash with human qualities. Thankfully, it did achieve its purpose and put the trombonist back at the top of the polls where he remained for as long as he was playing. In the end, that could be why there is less devotion to J.J. than to many other greats. There were no surprises, no ups and downs. He was just incredibly proficient — to the point that he got taken for granted. Now that the man has gone, let us hope that the fine music like he left behind is never treated with the same complacency. With Volume Two also due for re-packaging there is reason to be optimistic.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.