Howard Johnson and Gravity, “Testimony” (Tuscarora Records)
“I’ve been working for the Joneses, doing things I swore I’d never do,” Nedra Johnson sings on “Working Hard for the Joneses,” a swinging blues tune that’s a bit of a throwaway number on the latest from jazz tuba innovator Howard Johnson.
For decades, Johnson has been doing things on the tuba most folks swore could never be done. Namely, he plays with the kind of agility, and gets into the kind of treble generally not associated with his low-register instrument. A variety of jazz players and composers, including Charles Mingus, Gil Evans and Carla Bley, have tapped Johnson’s gifts over the years, as have the “Saturday Night Live” band and several pop artists.
“Testimony” is another testament to the tuba’s viability as a jazz instrument, and to the 75-year-old Johnson’s continuing vitality as a player. He’s again backed by his subsonic-toned Gravity, a group which, on some tracks, has the leader joined by as many as a half-dozen other tuba players.
That choir of low-low-brass horns makes for appealingly rich and dark textures, starting with Johnson’s title track, the first of several on which he shows off his chops as an improviser, bouncing over the mid-tempo groove provided by pianist Carlton Holmes, bassist Melissa Slocum and drummer Buddy Williams.
Johnson handily handles the lead of McCoy Tyner’s “Fly With the Wind,” slipping into the (relative) stratosphere and soloing before again passing the tuba baton to Dave Bargeron. Tyner’s “High Priest” has the leader switching to his other main instrument, baritone sax, for a quick solo turn; the tune also features an impressive improvisation by Slocum.
For all the tuba-does-jazz celebrating, the program is pleasantly varied, with the ensemble cranking up the gospel-blues textures and rhythms for Carole King’s ’71 hit “Natural Woman,” a showcase for the mellifluous playing of Velvet Brown, whose F tuba comes off as a trombone. And Johnson makes another instrument — pennywhistle — viable as a jazz vehicle on his “Little Black Lucille.” Neat trick.
Some of the disc’s richest, most sonorous tones are to be heard on Bob Neloms’ “Evolution,” which opens with unaccompanied brass, in a passage somewhat reminiscent of Gil Evans’ arrangements, before shifting to the head and vigorous solos by tuba men Johnson, Earl McIntyre, Bargeron, and Bob Stewart; Holmes quotes “A Love Supreme” in his solo.
“Way Back Home,” penned by late Crusaders bassist/saxophonist Wilton Felder, caps the set with a welcome round of down-home funk and more tuba acrobatics. The group modulates up a step at the end, amping the feelgood nature of it all. There’s plenty of inspired playing and fun to celebrate here, along with the low-end brass gravitas.