When the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined modern life, working musicians had their own ways of working through their downtime. Some took time to revisit abandoned projects, while others started whole new ideas from scratch. Some attempted socially-distant recording sessions while others embraced home recording. Some channeled COVID-related anxieties into their music, while others treated their music as a form of escapism. The nature of everyone’s endeavors varied because it was a time of great uncertainty. How much longer would the virus spread? Will there be a change in management/government? If so, will it change the course of the virus? Uncertainty was the only certainty.
For modern jazz bassist Max Johnson, this uncertainty produced anxiety instead of opportunity. “While I watched musicians talk about how great it was to take time off, or how productive they were being, I struggled to get out of bed each day and found it hard to put on my usual positive face.” Inertia can catch some artists unawares. Johnson was planning on recording an album of solo bass music in the spring of 2020, but we all know what happened around that time. Hermit Music, the album you see here, isn’t really that album. Hermit Music is the product of creative struggles in the face of a dismal world.
Had Johnson had the opportunity to step into a studio before quarantine, we would have had a very different album on our hands. “What you hear on this record is a different bass player, improviser, and person than you would have heard two years prior,” he admits. Just how different that album would have been, we’ll probably never know. One thing we do know is that Hermit Music is a very distressing little collection of music. Johnson released two albums earlier in 2020, but they arose from sessions before the pandemic. With all due respect to both of them, they do not prepare you for what’s in store here.
Everything on Hermit Music is spontaneous. To hear Johnson tell it, these five compositions are improvisation in their purest form. The engineer just hit the record button, and Johnson attacked the bass. Considering that there are only two conventional ways to summon a note from upright bass, pizzicato or bow, Johnson can create a wide variety of strange noises from his instrument. Orbit of Sound and Sketches from earlier this year explored post-bop terrain with great agility, but Hermit Music could be the soundtrack of Charles Mingus’ mid-’60s mental breakdown.
The opening title track is one of the least unsettling numbers, giving Johnson close to seven minutes to stretch his left hand as it jumps up and down the board, pulling all of the individual notes from hiding. Dynamic extremes are tested, letting the bass become whisper quiet or rumbling through a bowling alley. It’s on the aptly titled “Ghost Whistle” when things turn a little odd. By using his bow, Johnson does everything from eliciting pitches high enough to bother dogs to parading twin melodies around the scale just a whole step apart. The bow even becomes a rhythmic catalyst at one point, smacking out a precise syncopation that would honestly baffle most professional bassists. “Recording this music was very difficult for me,” reflects Johnson, “and [it] created a number of mental and emotional challenges I did not anticipate.” But when he whips out his bow to pull off something like that, you’re hearing prowess. Whatever the challenges, they were worth it.
When “Haystacks” starts, it sounds like a continuation of “Ghost Whistle”. Here, Johnson reverts to soft strokes for plucking, stirring up discordant clusters that are too harmonically tense to settle down fully, as the rubato tempo would suggest. “Glass Lungs” throws everything into the pot; bowed weirdness, plucked passages, sometimes both at the same time. His instrumental stops sounding like a bass halfway through when it begins to take on eerily disembodied raspy howls.
The concluding track, “Woodmere”, a piece dedicated to the stringed instrument maker Ed Maday, sounds like Johnson’s needle has hit ‘E’, but he still pushes onward. “Woodmere” plays out like a run-on sentence that keeps finding new subjects and predicates but is reluctant to conclude the thought. Even in the end, the music is dragged to the finish line through Johnson’s low-register use of the bow. It is at once exhilarating and agonizing. Equipped with the knowledge that recording this music caused Johnson some discomfort, the listener is as likely to wince in reaction to the rawness as they to perk up upon hearing new sounds. If this is what it means to suffer for one’s art, then Johnson’s art speaks for itself. Hopefully, now that all that catharsis is out of his system, he can proceed to business as usual, albeit sadder and wiser.