What could possibly be so interesting about a thirty-two-year old session of first takes, recorded live to 2-track DAT by a quartet led by a Seattle- based bassist who is not exactly a household name? A quick answer would include superlatives such as "masterful," or "historic." A brief history of bassist and composer Jeff Johnson creates a better sense of understanding. Johnson is perhaps best known as a pioneering member of pianist Hal Galper's revolutionary rubato trio of the '90's, and '00's. His education in music was not from an institution of higher education, but from the fertile jazz scene of the early '70's in his native Minneapolis. His original sound would later be nuanced by time spent in Texas and Oklahoma, and by time spent alongside masters, including such greats as Philly Joe Jones, during a brief tenure in New York.
All things aside, Minneapolis was Johnson's primary education, where he learned from such Twin Cities stalwarts as pianist Art Resnick. As both a pianist and composer, Resnick was a deep dive into jazz harmony and ear training for the young bassist, not to mention a meter-bending composer several turns ahead of the compositional curve in jazz. In 1991, the year this session was recorded, Resnick had relocated to Portland, Oregon, while Johnson had settled in just up the coast in Seattle. They had played together for a few years in Los Angeles with intrepid drummer Billy Mintz and influential saxophonist, John Gross.
Gross was indoctrinated with Beat culture as a teenager and, during his formative years, performed with jazz luminaries Ornette Coleman, Gary Peacock and Horace Tapscott. He eventually played in the house band at Shelly Manne's legendary Hollywood nightspot, Shelly's Manne-Hole, where he played with many jazz greats of the day, including Miles Davis. By 1991, Gross had relocated to Portland, Oregon, and was performing in this Johnson-led quartet with Mintz and Resnick.
While touring, Johnson secured four hours of studio time on-the-fly in Portland, and put down six tracks which would be released in cassette form, and used mainly as a promotional item to secure gigs. Since that time, he had always wanted to release it, "for real." Origin Records gave him that opportunity, with some precision editing from Floyd Reitsma, at Studio Litho, in Seattle. The appropriately titled My Heart (Origin, 2023) is the result.
The most striking quality of this recording is how perfectly it brings out the character of each participant's personal approach and overall sound. Johnson's compositions are notoriously open-ended, providing lots of elbow room for four voices to have a focused and emotive conversation. The album jumps out with three Johnson tunes which validate this point. On "Linden Station," the opener, the listener becomes acquainted with Johnson's elegant vibrato, his tall, angular lines and brilliance as a soloist. He achieves this without ever missing a note of support for Resnick or Gross during their respective extended solos. Along with "Leviathan," and "Companions," the opener is an extended twelve-plus- minute track, allowing for spontaneous work without restraint. The music swings gently, with Johnson and Mintz in beautiful unison which is straight ahead, yet contains a degree of elasticity. Gross improvises in and around Johnson's lithe melodies with a tone which suggests romanticism and melancholy, even at its most intense moments. Gross' reputation as a musician's musician rises to the surface, his flawless technique, elegant tonality and melody-based spontaneity perfectly embracing the vibe of Johnson's tunes.
It is on Johnson's beautiful ballad, "My Heart," that all four musicians come to an emotional peak. It is an engaging listen, where the personality match which made these four men friends, becomes the emotional and sonic tipping point for their relationship as musicians. It is the moment when an engaged listener realizes that they are "all in."
"Studio City" was originally a seventeen-minute piece which suffered some technical damage over time. Johnson edited it down from the full band, to a five-minute duo between Gross and Mintz which exemplified their collective experience together over a number of years in Southern California.
One can only hope this recording re-acquaints the jazz public with Johnson's work, which continues, full bore. Riding the wave of his most recent release Variable Clouds: Live at the Earshot Jazz Festival (Origin, 2022) with the Seattle based quartet, Scenes, Johnson is a force in modern jazz both as a bassist and a major contributor to what has come to be known as the "Northwest sound." This album, thirty-two-years in the making, is added confirmation of just that.