Brooklyn-based trumpeter Darren Johnston traveled to Chicago in May 2021 to record Life in Time with three of his favorite musicians: saxophonist Geof Bradfield, bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Dana Hall who form their own working trio in the Windy City. The generally charming studio date encompasses ten original compositions, six by Johnston, four by Bradfield.
Technically and musically, the foursome is splendid. What is missing—and it takes a tune or two to sink in—is the welcome sound of a piano. Even though Johnston more or less subscribes to Chet Baker's "less is more" philosophy of lyricism, this is not the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, one of the few groups that could make one forget that a piano is usually indispensable. The choice of material has much to do with that; while Johnston and Bradfield write well enough, there is nothing here that rises to the status of memorable. And even though comparisons are no more than randomly useful, that is where Mulligan/Baker were at their best.
And in this case the assessment is clearly less than apt, as this is a different era, one in which the sort of even-tempered melodicism typical of bygone times (especially on the West Coast) has been replaced by a more contemporary approach, one whose predominant trait is solidarity, not necessarily elegance, although that remains a part of the equation. Within those parameters, Johnston and his mates play quite well. Johnston is comfortable at every tempo, and especially engaging (muted) on the closing "Song for Kamala." Bradfield plays solid tenor sax on seven numbers, bass clarinet on "Intention and Commitment" and "Locomotive Sunflower," soprano on Johnston's high-strung "Little Gold Fish" (more soprano would have been warmly received). Sommers and Hall are able soloists too, as they show, respectively, on "Lost and Found" and "Life in Time."
The quartet plows a mostly even path, notwithstanding a few barely perceptible detours, most notably on Bradfield's "Lost and Found" and "Guimaraes." In all, this is a first-class session, marked by bright solos and snug interplay, even though lacking the sort of singular personality that could set it apart from the herd. And then there's the matter of that piano....