Catching Up with the Max Johnson Trio
After spending almost 48 hours with Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba Ensemble, who were in town earlier in the week, we had scant time with Anna Webber (tenor sax/flute), Michael Sarin (drums), and the leader, Max Johnson (bass), who performed on October 26 in Easthampton, MA. While the short visit made for easy logistics, that’s not how I prefer it.
Along with the music itself, of course, the time spent eating, drinking and socializing with musicians, what we often call, “the hang”, is one of the payoffs for doing the work of producing concerts. The opportunity to interact with my musical heroes is both motivation and tonic for me. By organizing public performances, I become a small part of the great historical flow of creative music in North America.
After a gig in Philadelphia the night before, the Trio arrived at the beautifully refurbished Blue Room in Easthampton’s old town hall in time for sound check and a quick meal imported from Daily Operation. They left after the show to crash at Webber’s Greenfield headquarters, leaving precious little time to trade stories and catch up on news and jazz scuttlebutt.
But the music was all there, being road tested for a December recording session. After a performance at Firehouse 12 in New Haven the next day, the trio is off to Germany, Austria and Slovenia for eight concerts, before heading back to New York for another live show and the recording. The music should be well lived in by then.
These compositions, much of it recently penned by Johnson, were so new most didn’t yet have titles; Johnson encouraged us to come up with names for them. Many featured intricate heads played in unison by bass and saxophone, some at impossibly fast tempos. As impressive as their technical skills were, it was the melodicism and coherency of the pieces that brought nods and wows from the assembled.
The sophistication of the written music should come as no surprise. Johnson is an accomplished composer, having written dozens of chamber music and vocal pieces in the European classical tradition. He is now enrolled in a PhD program in composition at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is studying with Tyshawn Sorey and others. Johnson is also a first-call bass player in the bluegrass tradition, having performed with artists like David Grisman, Sam Bush, Molly Tuttle, the Travelin' McCourys, Chris Thile, and others. Perhaps the accessibility of his complicated jazz pieces results from his immersion in American roots music.
Johnson’s deep, woody sound on the bass complemented Webber’s strong effort on saxophone and flute. Her phrasing, full of short syncopated bursts and redolent of blues and bebop, infused the evening with jazz essence. On one (unnamed) piece, her precise, masterful use of split tones over the rhythm section’s steady pulse was oh, so musical. Over the last few years we’ve been lucky to see Webber with her Simple Trio (John Hollenbeck and Matt Mitchell), her duo with Eric Wubbels (live streamed from Amherst Media), and as part of David Sanford’s big band. She has always had chops, but she has added a restraint and ebullience that gives added depth to her ideas. Besides her busy touring schedule, the 38-year old Webber is now co-chairing the Jazz Department at the New England Conservatory of Music. She’ll next perform in the Valley on March 17 at the Shea Theater, leading her new ensemble, Shimmer Wince.
What a treat to hear Michael Sarin twice in a month. He was here October 1 with Jeff Lederer’s Septet, but in this stripped down format he really had a chance to shine. He was a whirlwind, changing sticks, picking up rattles and bells, constantly adding color while pushing the ensemble. But as busy as he was, he was never louder than the music demanded, and his shifting rhythmic palette constantly refreshed and reinvigorated the music. It was hard not to focus on him.
I first met Max Johnson during the depth of the pandemic, when Jazz Shares produced a live streamed concert at Amherst Media featuring the James Brandon Lewis Quartet. It was an atypical visit, to say the least. And even though our time together on Thursday was brief, Max Johnson and his trio renewed my faith in the vitality of creative music today. Only 33 years old, the bassist is one of a number of young musicians carving out a life for himself in music. Resourceful, multi-dimensional and right-minded, Johnson has a lot to offer the music world. I hope he continues to include western Massachusetts on his itinerary, and at some point, stay awhile.