Liner notes for Russ Johnson: Save Big (0mniTone 12205)
The music on this recording is American music. Not American as in rah-rah, patriotic, flags-and-marching-bands American, but American in its breadth, feeling, insight, cultural synthesis, and economy. American in the same way Jack Kerouac, Aaron Copland, Georgia O'Keefe, and Frank Lloyd Wright advanced American art in their respective fields.
Who better for the source of such insightful, integrated music than Russ Johnson? An all-round good-natured "regular" guy, born in the American heartland. Someone who, from early on, dug jazz —that indigenous American art form. And someone who, even after twenty years of living on the East Coast, you'd still enjoy kicking back with on a Sunday afternoon to watch a football game and sip a cool one.
"It's funny. I don't consider myself a Midwesterner," responds Russ. "But I definitely know other people who do consider me to be a Midwesterner ... just in my 'vibe,' in my day-to-day life. In my 'laid-backness,' if you will."
Russ' laid-back good nature translates into the creative sensibility of this music. For all its inclusivity and creative energy, the music poses a certain spareness, directness, and pertinence in the same way the quintessentially American expression "Save big!" broadcasts its concise and practical message, but without the bloat of Madison Avenue swagger.
Several characteristics threaded throughout Save Big —Russ' first album as a leader —accord it a remarkable cohesion, something not often heard in a solo debut. Remarks Russ, "I really consider the CD as a suite. With the exception of two, I wrote all the tunes in a short period of time, and the music on the album was written with a concept and these specific players in mind."
The binding theme of Save Big is American jazz, filtered by rock and pop influences from throughout Russ' life, and by a powerful "downtown" flavor acquired from his years in New York. For example, the put-the-pots-on cooker "Figuratively Speaking" leaves no doubt about Russ' jazz head and suggests he's listened to plenty of Kenny Dorham (one of his trumpet idols). (Likewise, how many young players have assimilated the jazz tradition thoroughly enough to demonstrate the plunger mute prowess we hear on in several places on the disc?)
The musical motifs or "figures" that form the basis for the tune's musical conversation and impart an Ornettish accent to it are another common characteristic of the album. "I wanted things to be elastic, and within that composition there are a couple of different time feels and things like that," notes Russ, "but a lot of the music I write is based on figures that somehow capture the whole 'sum of the parts.'"
A third common characteristic is the harmonic freedom and rhythmic elasticity afforded by the open "pianoless quartet" format that Russ consciously chose to use on Save Big. "Considering the players I wanted to use, I thought if I brought a chordal instrument into the mix, it might send the music in a different direction," recalls Russ, who continues, "I specifically wanted to write music that was somewhat 'vamp' or 'groove' based —having the ability to really stretch and go wherever."
"Stretch and go" the quartet does, starting out appropriately enough with what Russ calls "an Americana vibe," propelled by his trumpet's democratic conversation with three consummate improvisers (who happen to be composers, as well). Russ wrote "Saguache" (pronounced "suh-watch") at 10,000 feet, while on a solo backpacking trip in Colorado in a county by the same name. Unlike most of his tunes, which he says usually require "erasing and scratching and scribbling," inspiration delivered "Saguache" in one fell swoop. Explains Russ, "The views were expansive and incredible, and the whole tune unfolded in about fifteen minutes." A similarly spacious, Americanesque quality is heard in the dawn-evoking "Reveille," a tune by bassist Kermit Driscoll, which is breathtaking both for the beautiful way its melodic line unfolds and for the big, wide-open sound the musicians are able to evoke —not an easy task for a quartet without a chordal instrument.
The impetus for "Indonesian Folk Song," a transcription contributed by John O'Gallagher, is exploring textures and sounds —especially the interactions between bass and drums and between the two horns, whose intentional musical "rubs" are evocative of the sinewy, non-chromatic sounds of a Vietnamese oboe. "If either player doesn't commit to play his part separately, it will not work at all," Russ explains. "With John, that's one of those things where we're both strong individually, and we're very strong together."
After a workout on the satisfying contrasts of "Rapid Comfort" and a sojourn to the Eastern-tinged "Constantinople," it's back to urban living with "The Loper," Russ' portrayal of "a juicer on the street," replete with zigzagging and a slight limp in his gait. Adds Russ, "He's grooving along, then all of a sudden there's this guy-trips-on-a-crack-in-the-sidewalk kind of vibe." Then stepping (or, perhaps, stumbling) off the street into a big city nightclub gig, the album closes appropriately with a stratospheric twist on the jazz set "break tune." The smoking "Sympathetic Mildew" does a final motific redux in a progressive workout on a single funky jazz riff, with a Maceo Parker-like shout early on from O'Gallagher.
Russ' creativity never sounds forced. The listener isn't forced to work hard to "get it"; he can take it any way he wills. Listening to Save Big is like taking a complete, well-planned trip: one that's enjoyable, satisfying, not too long, and with more than a few pleasant surprises along the way. We feel richer for the experience, glad we made the journey, and eager to go back for more again soon