Russ Johnson, a native of Racine, has recently returned to the Milwaukee jazz scene after a successful 24 year stint as a jazz trumpeter in New York. Johnson performed regularly at a noteworthy jazz club called the “Knitting Factory” that was part of Brooklyn's "downtown" jazz scene. As a fixture of that scene he became known as the “downtown trumpeter”.
A few notes from a recent performance at the Jazz Estate illustrate what Johnson’s style is all about. His compositions strike a balance between the spacious and sometimes raucous tendencies of free jazz, and the restraint that concern for melodic development brings to a composition. Some of Johnson’s compositions are “free-er” than others: in another recent performance at Sugar Maple, a few of Johnson’s compositions were reminiscent of Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. That is to say, they were atonal, and sometimes even arrhythmic. Yet, as above, the emphasis on melodic development seems to bind together the more unruly elements of each piece.
One of the more interesting moments in our conversation occurred when I asked Johnson about ways to help non-jazz listeners understand the more unrestrained elements of jazz. How can jazz improvisation be understood as an art? The techniques Pollock used to create his abstract expressionistic paintings might be used as an analogy: when Pollock set out to create a painting, he did it with an apparent spontaneity and simply spattered paint on a canvas seemingly in a very improvised way. Similarly, ever since the days of Mingus and Coltrane’s experimentalism in the 60’s, jazz musicians have taken to performing their gigs with a minimum of rehearsal that adds to the spontaneity of the improvisational elements of their performances. But can such performances be understood as art?
What emerged from our conversation however, which is not much discussed outside the circle of jazz musicians themselves, was that the training jazz musicians go through to bring off successful improvisations involves a great deal of prior training to gain a familiarity with patterns of notes that work well together. Once this sense of "where to go" with the notes becomes well ingrained, the improviser can use elements of those patterns to his or her own purpose. Of course, a pure improviser will not play into patterns and will avoid clichés; and yet it is the familiarity with what works when moving from one note to the next that helps a jazz musician to improvise in a way that is successful and reflects his or her intentions. Without such training, improvisation might be said to be something haphazard; but being able to do it well in a consistent manner does require the acquisition of a technique and “art”.
Johnson emphasized the willingness and ability to listen to the other players when taking to a solo. A good frontline soloist, for example, must be able to feel the rhythm set out by the bassist and drummer. He must be able to feel it in such a way that he can move into the “space” created by the beats and play in a way that is consistent with the beat (usually) even when the beat is merely an implied one. These two traits go hand in hand: a good soloist will not give into the temptation to focus merely on the sound of his own instrument: good playing requires playing with the other musicians, even if it means playing in an understated way. One must have a feeling for this that perhaps cannot be taught regardless of one’s training. Here the “soul” of the music enters the picture one might say. There is a sense in which a performer must "get it" when it comes to the music and must "get" what the musicians around him are doing that must come with time, but is also idiosyncratic to each player.
Johnson’s compositions support the emergence of these characteristics. Their framework frequently has an “open” quality and leaves room for the music to “breathe”. He seems now to be in the process of forming a new identity and readily embraced that of a jazz-composer. All of the items on his playlist at the Estate show were composed and even heavily so. The compositional element brings a tightness to each tune that comes from the overlay of the melodic element upon the rhythmic one. This brings an additional interest to each tune and the space for solo performances (Tim Daisy’s drum solos come immediately to mind) help to make their feel tight, yet free. Like any composer or songwriter, the thing is to hit upon a melody or phrasing that really works well with the other elements brought into play. One gets the feeling that Johnson is earnestly in search for the right elements in that mix.