With a two-trombone front line, supplemented by guiding light Rob Dixon on tenor sax, J.J. Johnson was accorded a posthumous 98th-birthday celebration Saturday night at the Jazz Kitchen.
|Rob Dixon led; Freddie Mendoza and Ernest Stuart (bottom photo) embodied the legacy. |
The celebrated trombonist-arranger-bandleader died in his hometown, diminished by illness, in the winter of 2001.
In a long career that began here in the 1940s, he had long since birthed a new generation of jazz trombonists, of whom Freddie Mendoza and Ernest Stuart numbered themselves in remarks from the stage during the first set. A first-rate rhythm section contributed mightily to the tribute: pianist Steve Allee, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Chris Parker.
It was no surprise that the band stuck to Johnson originals. He was a prolific composer, and I'd be surprised to learn Saturday's second set didn't consist entirely of his works as well. My first acquaintance with his excellence as both player and arranger came with my purchase as a teenage trombonist of "Jay & Kai + 6." On that LP, his arrangements for trombone octet (along with with those of the studio date's co-leader, Kai Winding) vivified every piece he touched, most of them standards I've since never cared to hear any other way ("No Moon at All," for example).
Long thereafter, I was among the delighted crowd to welcome Johnson back as a performer after he had resettled in his home town. He brought his quintet to the Jazz Kitchen when the club was less than a year old for a three-night stand in March 1995. Among the pluses of that experience, I noted at the time that "he can sound both tender and ironic, as if seeing a tune from various emotional perspectives as he creates logical, moving solos on it."
Both of the tribute trombonists have their own styles, but their fully formed habits remain capable of showing their debts to the master. Stuart seemed to hark back to the blatant, stinging tone of the early trombone manner, while at the same time detaching phrases, some of them pungently short, according to the pointillistic bop language. A case in point was his solo on "Shortcake," with added rhythmic insight animating his solo on "Flat Black," which Johnson based on the standard "What Is This Thing Called Love?" Its teasing fadeout reversed course in a crescendo that was typical of the set's spontaneous-feeling yet well-managed endings.
Mendoza had a showcase, as Dixon and Stuart stepped aside, in "Lament," perhaps Johnson's most famous ballad. Evoking the J.J. manner at its tenderest, he opened up aspects of the tune I never expected to hear. He also found the mellow side of the dance-inflected "Kenya," introduced by Parker alone before the band stated the rapidly swaying theme, whose medium-bounce bridge provided the tempo cue for most of the soloing.
"Shutterbug," the set's fastest piece, didn't jell immediately, but soon hit its stride. Parker's excellence as a sideman was confirmed by the drive and variety he provided behind a spirited Dixon solo. The enthusiasm of the audience was whipped up at length by the finale: "Fat Back," a slow blues with the kind of parade-ground rhythmic underpinning reminiscent of Benny Golson's "Blues March." The ensemble stayed poised even as it waxed "greasy" (say it to rhyme with "easy"). The performance embraced the spectrum of the golden age of small-group modern jazz, to which J.J. Johnson contributed so much.
[Photos by Rob Ambrose]