Josh Johnson 2024
Photo: Robbie Jeffers / Clandestine Label Services

Josh Johnson’s ‘Unusual Object’ Is a Fascinating Record

Celebrated saxophonist Josh Johnson infuses his music with various styles on this surprisingly accessible new LP of processed, ambient jazz.

Unusual Object
Josh Johnson
Northern Spy
5 April 2024

Josh Johnson’s eclectic resume – working with artists as diverse as Jeff Parker, Gregory Uhlmann, Makaya McCraven, Marquis Hill, Leon Bridges, and Kiefer – has given him the freedom to write his own ticket when releasing albums under his own name. Notably, his work as producer and saxophonist on Meshell Ndegeocello‘s Grammy-winning 2023 album The Omnichord Real Book has further solidified his credentials. And while his excellent 2020 solo album Freedom Exercise is a delightful, engaging collection of jazz and jazz-fusion performances, his latest album, Unusual Object, sees him moving even further into nontraditional musical realms.

One of the things that makes Unusual Object such an interesting and entertaining release is that while it seems to employ modern, somewhat experimental techniques, it’s unlikely to turn off more traditional jazz fans. With the exception of a drum sample from Aaron Steele on the kinetic, highly syncopated “Quince”, every sound made on the record is created by Johnson. The processed sounds and odd sonic loops that weave their way into each song can initially come off as challenging to an old-school jazz fan, but the effect is so effortlessly engaging that it’s seemingly effortless for anyone to fall in love with the sound.

The stuttering, stop-and-start action of the opening track, “Who Happens If”, retains an unusual warmth, as the saxophone is double-tracked with synth-like effects that create something of an interplanetary horn ensemble. It’s not long before percussion makes its way onto Unusual Object, as the second track, “Marvis”, is anchored by a simple kick drum – a sparse but insistent beat, almost martial – while saxophone and keyboards elegantly interlock, occasionally mixed with spacey effects. Johnson makes concessions to more traditional jazz motifs while gently nudging the listener into the present day.

Well, not always gently nudging. “Telling You” opens with stuttering vocal samples, bits of musique concrete, off-kilter synthesizers and a synthetic funk beat before Johnson’s sax enters the picture. “Sterling” is a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” exercise in jarring atonality. The brief interstitial “Local City of Industry” consists of nothing but alien keyboard blips. But mostly, Johnson appeases the jazz fans without approaching anything close to predictability. In fact, “Reddish” is simply a little under two minutes of Johnson’s majestic, elegant saxophone soloing with no accompaniment.

Often, Johnson is happy to meet the listener halfway. In “Jeanette”, his saxophone solo moves along with the aid of a lilting, Latin-tinged drum machine. In the closing track, “All Alone”, he’s accompanied by subtle keyboards and muffled, low-in-the-mix artificial percussion that sounds more akin to krautrock or techno than any of the hip-hop beats used elsewhere.

While listening to Unusual Object, I was often reminded of Modern Day Jazz Stories, jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine’s 1995 foray into the fusion of jazz and hip-hop. Josh Johnson takes it several steps further, insisting that the melding of jazz, electronica, experimentalism, and other hybrid genres can not only live peacefully but also feed off each other to create exciting, previously unheard combinations of sound.   

RATING 8 / 10