A stalwart of the Pacific Northwest jazz scene, Johnson is a veteran bassist who seems comfortable in just about any surrounding. With this newest effort, Johnson surrounds himself with like-minded musicians in an effort to record songs he had written over the course of the past 20 years while traveling around the world playing music. In an effort to keep the session "accidental," the musicians didn't rehearse prior to recording, instead letting the music unfold in the studio. The resulting album is full of space, beauty, and truth.
The musicians on "Suitcase" are among the best America has to offer. Saxophonist Hans Teuber lends his unique sound and approach to the reed chair. Able to walk the line between straight ahead and avant garde, Teuber's sound is at once fragile and strong, much like Lee Konitz, and at times he's painterly in a Wayne Shorter-esque fashion. His bass clarinet sound is especially dark, strong and beautiful. Like all of the other musicians here, Teuber has a way of just letting the music happen. Pianist Steve Moore is unique in jazz. His playing is devoid of the trademark "Mehldau/Herbie/Chick /Keith-isms" that all too frequently make up the modern pianist's DNA. It's hard to put a finger on just who Moore has checked out or transcribed, and the listener is all the better for it. With a fresh sound and an organic approach to improvising and accompaniment, Moore should be making more albums under his own name.
The writing is strong and varied throughout, from the open funkiness of "Scene West" and "Soweto Man" to the tenderness of the ballad, "Artist," and the all-out, free-jazz vibe of "Picasso." Drummer Eric Eagle seems to squeeze every drop of color out of cymbals and drums, lending a highly nuanced touch to every corner of the sound.
Johnson comes across as no less than a master of his instrument, able to pull off whatever uniquely wacky idea he might have at any moment. Like the other players, one is unlikely to pinpoint just a few influences in his playing; it seems all encompassing at the same time wholly unique. Johnson's "bag o' tricks" contains a wide variety, from funk to country to be-bop and free-jazz. He deserves more credit and worldwide recognition; hopefully, "Suitcase" will help to introduce a new audience to his unique music.