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Howard Johnson and Gravity


Tuscarora Records 17:001 [53:37]




1.Testimony (Howard Johnson)

2.Working Hard for the Joneses (Nedra Johnson)

3.Fly with the Wind (McCoy Tyner)

4.Natural Woman Carole King)

5.High Priest (McCoy Tyner)

6.Little Black Lucille (Howard Johnson)

7.Evolution (Bob Neloms)

8.Way Back Home (Wilton Felder)

Howard Johnson (tuba, baritone saxophone, penny whistle)

Velvet Brown, Dave Bargeron, Earl McIntyre; Joseph Daley, Bob Stewart (tubas)

Carlton Holmes (piano)

Melissa Slocum (bass)

Buddy Williams (d)

Guests: Nedra Johnson (vocals, track 2), Joe Exley (tuba, tracks 1,5,6,7,8) C.J. Wright, Butch Watson, Mem Nahadr (backing vocals, 2).

Rec MSR Studios, New York City [date not given, probably 2016]

Howard Johnson may not be one of the big names of jazz. But his service to the music has been prodigious and even at 75 (he was born in 1941) he is capable of playing that puts many much bigger names to shame. Testimony pays eloquent testimony to his superb qualities as both soloist and arranger.

Johnson has an extraordinarily diverse musical CV. He has played / recorded with, amongst many others, Charles Mingus, Gil Evans, Jaco Pastorius, Oliver Nelson, Hank Mobley, Archie Shepp, Andrew Hill, Bill Dixon, Hank Crawford, Gary Burton, Roland Kirk, Sam Rivers, Chet Baker, Jack DeJohnette, Carla Bley, Gerald Wilson, Charlie Haden, McCoy Tyner, George Gruntz and Muhal Richard Abrams. On the fringes (and beyond) of jazz he has worked with Taj Mahal, Paul Butterfield, B.B. King and John Lennon. He has long been in demand as a studio musician and for several years he directed the house band for NBC’s Saturday Night Live. He is a multi-instrumentalist; though tuba and baritone sax are his main instruments, he also plays trumpet, clarinet, bass-clarinet – and penny whistle!

It is no overstatement to claim that Johnson, more than any one else, liberated the tuba as a solo instrument in modern jazz. Others (such as Bill Barber) took the instrument beyond its role in the rhythm section of some early jazz ensembles, encouraging and enabling its use as a distinctive colour in the instrumental palette of arrangers such as Gil Evans and Gerald Wilson, but it was essentially Johnson who revealed the tuba’s possibilities as a virtuoso solo instrument. In the process he has been a powerful influence on younger players such as Bob Stewart, Marcus Rojas and Joe Daley.

Johnson’s tuba-dominated band ‘Gravity’ was formed in 1968 and made its eponymous first album in 1995. Testimony is its third – in between came Right Now, featuring Taj Mahal. On Testimony, Johnson is one of seven tuba players (not all of whom play on every track). Professor Velvet Brown leads the tuba choir (it seems inappropriate to call it just a ‘section’). On the title track, Johnson and Bargeron are the tuba soloists. ‘Working Hard for the Joneses’ features Johnson as tuba soloist and his daughter Nedra as vocalist, while on ‘Fly with the Wind’, Johnson and Bargeron are once more the solo tubas. Velvet Brown is the featured tuba soloist on ‘Natural Woman’ and Johnson solos on baritone sax on ‘High Priest’ and on penny whistle in ‘Little Black Lucille’. ‘Evolution’ features four of the tuba players as soloists – Johnson, McIntyre, Bargeron and Stewart; the closing track, ‘Way Back Home’ gives us solos by Stewart, Bargeron and Johnson. The repertoire is characteristically eclectic, ranging from Wilton Felder, of the Jazz Crusaders (‘Way Back Home’) to Carole King (‘Natural Woman’) via McCoy Tyner (‘Fly with the Wind’ and ‘High Priest’). Johnson himself contributes ‘Testimony’ and ‘Little Black Lucille’, while daughter Nedra is responsible for ‘Working Hard for the Joneses’. ‘Evolution’ was written by another jazz veteran, pianist Bob Neloms, like Johnson an alumnus of Mingus bands; Neloms cannot, apparently remember ever composing the tune!

If, before committing to the purchase of this album, you want evidence that the tuba can, indeed, sound like a front-line jazz instrument, try to hear either ‘High Priest’, on which boppish (or more specifically ‘Monkish’) phrasing is negotiated with nimble panache, or ‘Fly with the Wind’, where an entire choir of tubas – six of them – is invigoratingly agile. Elsewhere, as on ‘Way Back Home’ there are rich, dark and soulful textures and ‘Natural Woman’ is full of gospel-tinged passages – the solo here by Velvet Brown (Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at Pennsylvania State University) is a minor masterpiece, a thing of real beauty. But this album isn’t just a celebration of jazz tuba: to think of it only in those terms would be to overlook the contributions of bassist Melissa Slocum (notably in a striking solo on ‘High Priest’ and pianist Carlton Holmes (listen, for example, to his work on ‘Evolution’) or, indeed, Nedra Johnson’s powerful vocal on her blues ‘Working Hard for the Joneses’. Taken as a whole, for swing and for emotional expressiveness, for the skill of the arrangements (and the solos) by Johnson, for the quality of the ensemble work, this is a thoroughly impressive album. It sounds as if all involved had great fun in making it, and the performers’ joy is powerfully communicated to the listener.

Glyn Pursglove


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