Seattle's jazz scene is not well known for music that strays from a melodically mainstream focus. Emerald city bassist Jeff Johnson, though, has been producing challenging music that courses from avant-garde to stripped-down European-tinted free jazz, and his fourth album, Tall Stranger, finds the composer/player once again presenting liberating, sparse forms that stress trio improvisation.
Johnson is expertly abetted by friend and Seattleite Hans Teuber, who is no outsider to imaginative outpourings (although, like Johnson, he's also worked within traditional jazz settings) and drummer Billy Mintz, who has performed with similarly aligned artists such as Vinny Golia and Charles Lloyd.
The nine-track, almost hour-long outing is firmly explorative, with the trio searching for and generating spontaneous results instead of strict melodic or harmonic elements. Sometimes it seems as if the three players are communicating in a reserved, disconnected manner, but this approach is not unintentional. The proceedings are set up so each instrumentalist can follow his muse or musical impulse, but the musicians never wander far from each other's differing directions, constantly encouraging themselves and their fellow trio members.
The opening track, "Patience," could serve as the record's invocational main theme, since Johnson's multi-tiered mise en scène is determinedly and correspondingly paced throughout the rest of the material, even when events elsewhere sometimes ignite and shower sonic embers. Here, as on the other pieces, the bass is in the forefront, allowing Johnson to widen his scope, while the closely mic'ed recording imparts a minutely-detailed and precise sound. Listeners can actually hear the woody resonation of the bass contributing to the overall tonality.
There are several geographical motifs. The myth-laden "Pegasus in Harlem" has a primal vitality, where one of Johnson's solo undertakings is matched by Teuber's lower-register sax notes. "Pegasus in Harlem" is followed by the only cover, the Skeeter Davis country hit "(The) End of the World," where one musical epiphany is proceeded by another musical epiphany and so on. Anyone acquainted with the plaintive original, though, will discover the threesome quickly dispenses with familiarity, subverting and pulling away the song's structure. This is one of the best examples on Tall Stranger of tossing out expectations, and letting the music take one wherever the path leads. Johnson, in particular, is awe inspiring, specially when he scrapes his bow across the strings, seemingly bent on lashing apart his instrument bit by bit.
"Paris" also has a kind of playfulness that kindles a kinetic joie de vivre comparable to that found on "Pegasus in Harlem." For instance, the tune could comfortably have been used to underscore the ménage à trois in François Truffaut's classic film Jules and Jim.
The nearly nine-minute title track is also cinematic in space and perception. Teuber provides a potent and nomadic tenor sax line, while Mintz and Johnson pursue rhythmic statements that intertwine and enhance the composition's diverse nature. About two-thirds through, Teuber drops out and Johnson and Mintz embrace the tune's cardiac center, reducing the core to its very essence.
On the final cut, the melancholic "Texas," Johnson switches to bluesy electric guitar, while Teuber tackles the double bass. The vista-inspired elegy has a Bill Frisell-styled arrangement, liquid but also at times dissonant. Without any horn, the elemental vamp becomes concentrated on Johnson's syncopated, unadorned six-string course. "Texas" is an inverse contrast from the other pieces, but no less adventurous.
Tall Stranger is not a conventional free jazz trip, although it does apply a free jazz methodology. But it's also not a traditional jazz voyage, despite some related design aspects. Tall Stranger is one of those rare projects that defies easy categorization, with the consequence that it offers its audience something more stimulating than even Seattle's more famous caffeinated exports. On the technical side, Tall Stranger is a resolutely recorded production that audiophiles will also appreciate. Engineer Charles Tomaras captures every auditory shade, including when Teuber barely breathes down his reed, or Mintz's inflected, subtle brush work on his snare drum, not to mention all of Johnson's deeply etched bass reverberations. It is hard to imagine that this set of songs would fare equally well in a loud jazz club. ****1/2