Russ Johnson — Still Out to Lunch! (Enja)
Right from the open blast of horns and stealthy walking bass, this transports you to the album Out to Lunch!, modern jazz at a 1964 peak. The tune, “Hat and Beard,” a musical portrait of Thelonious Monk, stakes common ground in startling interval leaps that wind player Dolphy and pianist Monk shared. Nationally-reputed Milwaukee trumpeter Johnson dares to revisit the urbane lunch counter inhabited by Dolphy, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, vibist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Tony Williams. 1
Quotidian-detailed and genius-infused, the original album merged astringent structure and sardonic expression. Johnson’s quintet, with pianist Myra Melford and saxophonist Roy Nathanson, forgoes reverent replication and goes for broke, the original material securely in their DNA, and freshly arranged. Johnson and Nathanson’s horn voices interplay like close brothers sharing squabbling rivalry and terse love.
Russ Johnson (center) recently performed selections from “Still Out to Lunch!” with musicians from the recording. Courtesy corneliastreetcafé.com
Also find strange beauty, in “Something Sweet, Something Tender.” Melford recasts Hutcherson’s tart gleaming-sculpture vibes with her crisp attack and pungent voicings.
Several inventive extra tracks wisely enhance the original material Drummer George Schuller, is the son of pioneering “Third Stream” arranger and composer Gunther Schuller. “Little Blue Devil” from his father’s “Seven Studies on Themes by Paul Klee” open the door connecting modern art and modern music – and revealing the sense of subtle blues comedy that many people thought “serious” jazzers lacked in the ‘60s.1
The original album cover of the recording that inspired Russ Johnson’s new CD. Courtesy lectro.ws
Plus, their reviving of two obscure but worthy Dolphy compositions, “Intake” and “Song for the Ram’s Horn,” make this a work that expands on the historical context of Dolphy’s original masterpiece. This is the best kind of jazz repertory — pushing forward — as it expands our insights on how modern jazz greats did so, not so long ago.
1 This is Johnson’s second excellent album within a year following Meeting Point, which I reviewed in the Shepherd Express, Culture Currents, and NoDepression.com.
2 Dolphy himself recorded several Schuller Third Stream pieces including “Variant on a Theme of Thelonious Monk (Criss Cross),” and another on a John Lewis theme, on the 1961 Atlantic album John Lewis presents Contemporary Music: Jazz Abstractions – – Compositions by Gunther Schuller & Jim Hall. Those two pieces are available as part of the Ornette Coleman box set on Rhino Records, Beauty is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings. The complete album is available on a Rhino re-issue. “Third Stream” music strove to blend techniques and aesthetics of modern “classical” music and modern jazz.
This review was published in a slightly shorter form in the Shepherd Express: