Like so many other working musicians, bassist/composer Max Johnson had to wait out the agonizing period of inactivity brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. So it’s hardly surprising to find him releasing two albums for 2022 from two different ensembles. Orbit of Sound, his album with saxophonist/flutist Anna Webber and drummer Michael Sarin, is the product of rehearsing and touring in 2018 and 2019. The music was all in place, but the recording sessions had to wait until the summer of 2021. Sketches was recorded with pianist/vibraphonist Karl Berger and drummer Billy Mintz before the Orbit of Sound trio even formed. Who knows what else he has backlogged at the moment, so now is the time to take in these 12 “new” recordings before anything else comes down the pipeline.
Sketches is a straight-ahead, no-nonsense bop album. Johnson and Berger contribute two compositions each, Mintz writes one, and the two remaining covers are Charlie Haden’s “Ginger Blues” and a jazz reading of the old bluegrass standard “Black Eyed Suzie”. The tunes play out in the usual way, with themes followed by rounds of solos, but come with their own little twists and turns, like the gentle coda to “Presently” or Berger’s spidery piano playing on “Why the Moon Is Blue”. His delicate vibraphone work on Mintz’s “Flight” demonstrates why he has been so in demand as a sideman for over 55 years. Johnson’s “Debt” and “Sketches” are tender and just a tad haunting, respectively. Soft and impressionistic, both numbers are far too introspective to be labeled “ballads”. There’s more going on here than background music for crooners.
Orbit of Sound is a different beast altogether. All five tracks are composed by Johnson, and they glide on even fewer rules than the music of Sketches. Opener “Quick One” allows Sarin to take a solo where he completely disassembles the beat and builds back up slowly with Johnson in tow. The melody given to Webber hops all around the scale, using syncopated rhythms as its primary identifier. “Too Much Tuna”, with its in-pocket bassline and skipping flute, has all the makings of something way funky, but Sarin teases us with the idea of a groove instead of just diving into it.
At 16 minutes, “The Professor” moves from one elongated plane to the next amid foghorn passages, and closer, “Shepherd’s Morning” finds the trio exploring anchorless terrain. They barely produce a single note during the first three minutes of “Over/Under”, a 13-minute behemoth that lets Webber summon all kinds of squeaks and whistles while Johnson saws away with a bow. When the song does get going in a rhythmic sense, Sarin keeps things locked in as the music swirls about in a harmonic ether. Where it lands matters a great deal less than where it has been.
Like many currently active jazz musicians, Max Johnson has probably already moved on to his next projects, making Sketches and Orbit of Sound old news to him. In clearing the decks, he gives us a traditional bop album recorded with two veteran musicians and a contemporary jazz album recorded with two younger but no less adventurous musicians. That both of these recordings are worth your while for starkly different reasons is a boon to listeners paralyzed with the current array of choices currently available on Spotify. Call it a bassist’s Best of Both Worlds.