CD review: Howard Johnson and Gravity, “Testimony”

gravityHoward 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.



NPR 2016 Jazz Poll: Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, DeJohnette/Matt Garrison/Ron Carter, more


“Old Locks and Irregular Verbs,” the latest from Pulitzer-winning cornetist and composer Henry Threadgill, was last year’s best release. That’s according to those who voted in The 2016 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll. (I voted).

The poll’s Top 10:

1. Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs

2. Wadada Leo Smith, America’s National Parks

3. Jack DeJohnette/Matt Garrison/Ravi Coltrane, In Movement

4. Mary Halvorson Octet, Away With You

5. Michael Formanek Ensemble Colossus, The Distance

6. Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke

7. Nels Cline, Lovers

8. Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family, Beginnings of a Memory

9. Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra, Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings)

10. Steve Lehman & Selebeyone, Selebeyone

Rene Marie‘s Sound of Red was named best vocal disc (that was my pick, too, in that category), while best debut was a tie between Victor Gould‘s Clockwork and Ron Stabinsky‘s Free for One. The Pedrito Martinez Group‘s Habana Dreams won for best Latin jazz, and Larry Young‘s Larry Young in Paris: The ORTF Recordings was honored for best reissue.

Neither Threadgill’s disc nor either of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s two releases landed on my own Top 10 list, although I had the opportunity to hear a largely entrancing performance by Smith and pianist Vijay Iyer in July at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Here’s my JazzTimes review of what I heard at that great fest.

Four of my Top 10 picks, though — DeJohnette/Garrison/Coltrane, Matt Wilson, Jane Ira Bloom, and Aziza — do appear in the NPR poll’s Top 20.

Poll guru and esteemed jazz critic Frances Davis comments on each of the Top 10 releases, and offers the full list of the 50 picks here.

“The year belonged to what I think of as avant elders, or better yet, the avant gentry — musicians who have remained in the jazz vanguard for three to five decades now,” Davis offers in his analysis of the poll results.

And for inquiring minds … you can find the ballots of all 139 voters here.

My ballot is below:


  1. Orrin Evans, #knowingishalfthebattle (Smoke Sessions)
  2. Dave Holland-Chris Potter-Lionel Loueke-Eric Harland, Aziza (Dare2)
  3. Jack DeJohnette-Matt Garrison-Ravi Coltrane, In Movement (ECM)
  4. Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family, Beginning of a Memory (Palmetto)
  5. Nolatet, Dogs (Royal Potato Family)
  6. Jane Ira Bloom, Early Americans (Outline)
  7. Hendrik Meurkens, Harmonicus Rex (Height Advantage)
  8. Marquis Hill, The Way We Play (Concord Jazz)
  9. René Marie, Sound of Red (Motéma)
  10. John Beasley, MONK’estra, Vol. 1 (Mack Avenue)


  • René Marie, Sound of Red (Motéma)


  • Carlos Henriquez, The Bronx Pyramid (Blue Engine -15)


  • Clare Fischer Latin Jazz Big Band, ¡Intenso! (Clavo)









Tampa Jazz Notes: Sunshine Music Festival, Dr. John, Lettuce, more


Several good jazz — or jazz-related, or blues, funk, or groove-oriented — shows are ahead for the Tampa Bay area. And I’ll hit some of these concerts. On the way:

Saturday, Jan. 14, Sunshine Music Festival, Vinoy Park, St. Petersburg, noon to 10 pm — It’s another edition of the great fest, as usual topped by the amazing blues-soul outfit Tedeschi Trucks Band, featuring guitarist Derek Trucks and his wife, singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi. Also: Mavis Staples, Railroad Earth, Bruce Hornsby, North Mississippi Allstars.

Saturday, Jan. 14, Los Lobos, The Palladium, St. Petersburg, 7 pm — Still one of the great roots rock, blues and “brown-eyed soul” outfits on the road, Los Lobos always puts on an amazing show. They’re playing the same day as a festival (Sunshine Music Fest) that they previously played (a bummer for those who would liked to have attended both events).

Sunday, Jan. 15, Dr. John, Capitol Theater, Clearwater, 7:30 pm — The First Physician of Funk returns, with a band including NOLA bassist (and someone I’m happy to call a friend) Roland Guerin. For his latest release, the two-CD “The Musical Mojo of Dr. John,” the Good Doctor is joined by a roomful of NOLA greats and star musicians; the concert was recorded at New Orleans’ Saenger Theatre.

Thursday, Jan. 19, Lettuce, Jannus Live, St. Petersburg, 7 pm — Lettuce, powered by the fierce drumming of Adam Deitch, and featuring Eric Krasno and Neal Evans, the guitarist and keyboardist, respectively, for Soulive, and a three-piece horn section, is all about high-energy jazz funk. “Crush,” release in 2015, is their fourth studio album.

Monday, Jan. 23, The Last Waltz 40 Tour, Ruth Eckerd Hall, 8 pm — A celebration of the classic album, with an amazing rock/blues/jam lineup, including Warren Haynes, John Medeski, Ivan Neville, Michael McDonald, Don Was, Jamey Johnson, Bob Margolin, and Terence Higgins.

Sunday, Jan. 29, Bop Legacy, HCC Ybor Performing Arts Center Mainstage Theatre, Ybor City, 3 pm — This tribute to Chet Baker and Stan Getz features top-notch local jazzers: saxophonist Austin Vickrey, trumpeter James Suggs, pianist Stretch Bruyn, bassist Billy Pillucere, and drummer Joe Renda. 

Monday, Jan. 30, Eric Alexander, USF Concert Hall, Tampa, 7:30 pm — The acclaimed tenor saxophonist will be joined by the USF Faculty Jazz Ensemble.

Wednesday, Feb. 1, Pat Metheny, Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg,7:30 pm — The veteran guitarist, who plays an eclectic variety of music under the jazz umbrella, is touring with longtime bandmate Antonio Sanchez on drums, plus rising-star upright bassist Linda Oh and newcomer pianist Gwilym Simcock.

Also ahead: Whitney James’ Jazz Valentine, Palladium Side Door, St. Petersburg, Feb. 10; Al Di Meola “Elegant Gypsy 40th Anniversary,” Capitol Theatre, Clearwater, Feb. 13; St. Petersburg Jazz Festival, Feb. 22-26; Taj Mahal solo, Cap, March 8; Rickie Lee Jones & Madeleine Peyroux, the Cap, March 11; Gasparilla Music Festival (The New Mastersounds, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Shamarr Allen & the Underdawgs, Ryan Adams, Ghostface Killah, Have Gun, Will Travel), Curtis Hixon Park, Tampa, March 11-12; “The Sound: The Music of Stan Getz” (Jeff Rupert, Veronica Smith, others), Palladium Side Door, March 12; Tampa Bay Blues Fest (Buddy Guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Coco Montoya, Stephen Stills, more), Vinoy Park, St. Petersburg, April 7-9.


And, hey, if you want to see my band, Acme Jazz Garage, check us out Sunday, Jan. 22 from 4 to 7 pm at Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe in Seminole Heights (Tampa). We also play every Thursday and Friday, starting at 7 pm, at Timpano in Hyde Park Village (Tampa). Admission is free to the above shows.

Best Jazz of 2016 — Orrin Evans, Aziza, DeJohnette/Coltrane/Garrison, more


Last year, as usual meant more good music than time and dayjob/family/band responsibilities would allow me to hear.

But I did get the opportunity to absorb lots of great jazz — on record and, at the Montreal International Jazz Fest, in person. Several publications asked for my picks for Top 10 jazz releases..

So here goes. Later, I hope to go back and offer brief commentary on each album.

Meanwhile … the list:

1. Orrin Evans#knowingishalfthebattle (Smoke Sessions)

2. Aziza, Aziza (Dare2Records)

3. Jack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison, In Movement (ECM)

In performance:

4. Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family, Beginning of a Memory (Palmetto)

5. NolatetDogs (The Royal Potato Family)

6. Jane Ira BloomJane Ira BloomEarly Americans (Outline)

7. Hendrik Meurkensharmonicus rex (Height Advantage)

8. Marquis HillThe Way We Play (Concord Jazz)

9. Rene MarieSound of Red (Motema)

10. John BeasleyMONK’estra, Vol. 1 (Mack Avenue)

Montreal Jazz Fest Diary: Brian Wilson and more

Just a quick update today, on the events of Thursday (July 7):

  • Brian Wilson‘s 50th anniversary “Pet Sounds” at the spacious Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier theater: The two-hour show featured terrific, beautifully arranged recreations of a very appealing body of sun-smirched California pop music by a band of instrumentalists and singers that numbered 11. Matthew Jardine, son of Beach Boys co-founder Al Jardine (also in the band) nailed the stratospheric high harmony parts and every lead part he touched. The less said about Brian’s vocal performance, the better. The show was greeted by multiple standing ovations.
  • Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith at the intimate Gesu: The pianist/keyboardist and the trumpeter conspired on a long set — just two extended pieces — of avant-leaning improv that was heavy on textures and atmospherics. Iyer, a second-generation Indian-American, played a grand piano and Fender Rhodes, and manipulated sounds via his laptop, while Smith, the Mississippi-born AACM stalwart, offered muted and open long tones, shrieks, whispers and various sound effects. It was conversational, highly interactive and sometimes hypnotic. The rapt audience showed their appreciation for the challenging, adventurous music, associated with the pair’s recent ECM album, “A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke.”
  • Big Bad Voodoo Daddy on the outdoor TD Stage: The neo-retro outfit, still going strong after its ’90s heyday, roused the crowd with “You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three” and other showy swing and jump numbers.


Montreal Jazz Fest Diary: Marcus Miller & More

Day Two (Wednesday, July 6) in Montreal started with a tourist excursion over to Old Montreal, where I checked out the Notre-Dame Basilica, the gorgeous stone church that was completed around 1880. Among other amazing architectural feats, the Catholic cathedral features an organ with 7,000 pipes, played via 4 keyboards with 99 stops. It’s a place of great beauty but, frankly, not much reverence, at least during the day, when it’s invaded by the tourist hordes (including me).

I also checked out Point-A-Calliere, the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History, which offered an informative and entertaining walk through the city’s fabled history, and close-up views of some key artifacts. I didn’t know, or had forgotten that “Montreal” is shorthand for “Mont (Mount) Royal.” Bonus: Our tour guide, an archaeologist, was deeply knowledgeable and passionate about the origins of his city.

The history of Montreal, of course, is going to have to include a chapter on the Montreal Jazz Fest, which has had such a positive impact on the city’s music and arts scene. This year’s event, the 37th edition of the fest, marks my third (or is it fourth?) time covering the event.


Four years ago, I found myself in bass heaven at the Montreal fest, thanks to performances by Esperanza Spalding, Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke, Victor Wooten, Meshell NdegeOcello, and the late Jack Bruce (with Spectrum Road), among other great bassists and bass guitarists I got to see in 2012.

So it was great seeing Miller again, leading a five piece that included trumpeter Russell Gunn, alto and soprano saxophonist Alex Han, keyboardist Brett Williams and drummer Alex Bailey. Miller, wielding two of his signature Fender Jazz bass guitars (and, for inquiring minds, Aguilar cabs and amps), again demonstrated his astonishing agility as a master of a certain brand of funk playing — slap-and-pop and finger style.

Miller’s band, veering among straight-up jazz funk, fusion and rock styles, focused on the African-rooted grooves and textures heard on his new “Afrodeezia” album. The nearly two-hour set also included “Tutu,” one of several tunes Miller wrote, played on and co-produced for Mile Davis’s 1986 album of the same name; and a newfangled version of Edgar Winter’s early ’70s instrumental hit “Frankenstein.”

In addition to bass guitar, Miller played his bass clarinet and a kind of wooden box guitar. The bassist made an engaging figure, energetically moving around the stage, visibly responding to his bandmates’ playing and speaking (fluent?) French and English to the audience.

Half the fun of this fest, of course, is checking out unfamiliar (to me) bands from around the world playing free shows on the multiple outdoor stages.

Last night, I happened on Orlando Julius & the Afrosoundz, an eight-piece band led by the Nigerian singer and saxophonist, a long-running exponent of Afro-soul. Dressed in brightly colored traditional African garb, Julius, his wife and singing partner, and a group that included a rhythm section and two horn players, pumped out appealing grooves that occasionally reminded me of the likes of a countryman, the late King Sunny Ade.


Montreal Jazz Fest Diary: Kenny Barron & more

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(I’ll go into more detail in my review for a jazz mag; stay tuned).

It’s always a pleasure returning to the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal (Montreal Jazz Festival), an amazingly well-organized affair marked by high-caliber jazz, world music, blues, hip-hop, rock and other genres. The fest seems to take over the entire Quartier des spectacles, in the city’s downtown core.

Traffic from the area — bordered by St. Laurent Boulevard and De Bleury Street from east to west, and Ste. Catherine Street and President-Kennedy Avenue from north to south — is blocked off for the 10 days of the event. Crowds can be enormous, particularly on weekend days, but security is visibly present, and pleasant, and I’ve never witnessed any unruly behavior.

This year’s fest began June 29, and after a long day of travel from Florida, I arrived at my hotel late afternoon Tuesday. Folks were already milling around the fest district, sipping cool drinks and enjoying the summer warmth — pleasantly sunny, but a far cry from the steam heat I left behind in the Sunshine State.

The first stop on my Montreal Jazz Fest itinerary: Gesu (below), a gorgeous, comfortable acoustically pristine theater in the basement of a 19th Century Catholic Church on Bleaury Street. It’s a beautiful venue, and the stage was artfully lit, with blue shades splashed onto the stone columns.


In previous years at the fest, I’ve seen brilliant high-end jazz performances in the same venue by the likes of saxophonist Chris Potter. Last night’s concert featured the Kenny Barron Trio, led by the well-traveled jazz master who this year received the fest’s Miles Davis Award; it was the third of his three-night stand at Gesu, following his performances in a duo with guitarist Lionel Loueke, and in a concert with singer/flutist Elena Pinderhughes.

Barron was joined by a fellow Philadelphia native, drummer Johnathan Blake, and Japanese-born bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa for a set that handily demonstrated the creative possibilities of piano-trio jazz. Opening with the standard “How Deep is the Ocean,” the trio thrived on a balance between the blues-streaked bebop intensity of Barron, and the more aggressive, hyper-rhythmic approach of Blake (son of famed jazz violinist John Blake), with Kitagawa’s casual virtuosity and heartbeat-steady lines gluing it all together.

The set, oft entrancing, also included “I Hear a Rhapsody”; a bossa by Gal Costa; “Nightfall,” an affecting ballad that Barron played with its composer, the late Charlie Haden (also a Montreal Jazz Fest regular);  Barron originals “New York Attitude” and “Concentric Circles”; and a calypso number. Also on offer was a solo-piano version of an underappreciated Monk gem, “Light Blue,” incorporating stride rhythms and as angular, quirky, and playful as might be expected.

Next stop was the nightclub-style venue, L’Astral, for a fusion of jazz and electronic music from Norwegian trumpeter-composer Nils Petter Molvaer. Alone on stage except for a sound man and someone manning a laptop, he presented a sometimes hypnotic blend of beautiful long tones, thumping rhythms and exotic textures, feeding his horn through a variety of octavers, harmonizers and other special effects.

Later, the Campbell Brothers, a family band featuring twin pedal-steel guitar players, turned in a set centered on a sprawling, energetic version of Coltrane’s classic “A Love Supreme.” The group incorporated Hendrix-style rock sounds with gospel rhythms (drawing from the musicians’ origins in the sacred steel tradition) and an often overly heavy drums attack on the traditional “Wade in the Water,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and several originals.

Tonight: Marcus Miller and more.