Tuesday, November 15, 2011

CD Review: Nice Guy Trio & Darren Johnston

The Nice Guy Trio
Sidewalks and Alleys/Waking Music

Darren Johnston's Gone to Chicago
The Big Lift

(Porto Franco) http://www.portofrancorecords.com/

Both of these albums arrived at the beginning of the fall, collectively heralding the work of trumpeter Darren Johnston. They present the San Francisco resident in two different situations, each showing him to be a diverse performer and composer.

Sidewalks and Alleys/Waking Music is actually the Nice Guy Trio's second release. Along with Johnston, the group includes Rob Reich (accordion) and Daniel Fabricant (upright bass). For the two suites on the album, they also add two violins, a viola and cello. There's something wildly evocative about this kind of instrumentation that makes the music seem beg for some cinematic image to accompany it, and that's the case in Reich's five-piece Sidewalks and Alleys. Inspired by "countless hours spent wandering around the streets of cities, particularly San Francisco and New York," it begins with a slow minor waltz that evokes the pensive footsteps of such trips. While the pieces have a very written-through quality, there is room left for some improvisation. No group like this would feel complete without a tango, and for "The Inside Job," Johnston makes sure that it breaks from tradition with a solo renders that begins with some bent notes worthy of Lee Morgan and continues in something of a boppish mode.

Johnston composed the five pieces that make up Waking Music. His writing leans more towards jazz settings than Reich, and although it doesn't have quite the impact of the first set, his five tracks still have plenty to offer. The strings play with little to no vibrato and avoid giving the songs too much of a sweet color. When they do veer towards that end, in "Tiny Gods," they're balanced out by the minor key, a brusk 7/8 time signature and an intro that begins with Johnston blowing some smears and kisses. "Beyond the Paper Garden" has some stormy, heavy riffs from the strings, which may be the composer's way of describing the rough reality that comes with waking up.

As the band name of the other CD indicates, Johnston traveled to the Windy City in the summer of 2010, where he reconnected with compatriots Jeb Bishop (trombone), Jason Adasiewicz (vibraphone), Nate McBride (bass) and Frank Rosaly (drums). They recorded six of the trumpeter's own pieces and two far-flung covers. The session sounds a little loose on first listen, but closer examination reveals a group working with some strong compositions, keeping a free feel while still showing a lot of forward motion.

What comes across in "The Big Lift," which opens the set, is the counterpoint between trumpet and trombone. They play parallel to each other, in a way that offers mutual support. Beneath them, McBride really grooves, even though this is a free tempo. The written section of "Rubber Bullets" amounts to just a few seconds of throat-clearing at either end of the piece, with Bishop and Johnston both blowing flurries of ideas (the latter with McBride again nearly stealing the show with some excellent bow work). This contrasts with "Cut" in which Bishop trades the out-of-breath attack for a vaguely romantic tone.

Johnston's writing, coupled with the approach of his bandmates, gives the album an original sound, which for the most part is not akin to easy comparisons. However the tricky time signature of "Glass Ceiling, Paper Floor" coupled with the instrumentation gives the tune some faint traces of Dave Holland's recent work. It also, being track four, features the first solo by Adasiewicz, who makes his presence known but doesn't overstep his boundaries. All of these, of course, should be considered positive attributes to the album.

To add to the diversity, Johnston chose a rather deep Ornette Coleman piece ("Love Call") and a Duke Ellington classic ("Black and Tan Fantasy") for his interpretations. "Love Call" begins in a very rubato mood and then gives the spotlight over to Adasiewicz, on the instrument that was probably least likely to be heard in a harmolodic mood. "Black and Tan" stays pretty faithful to the original, though it's Bishop who conjurs Bubber Miley with his plunger mute.

This is the part of the review where I tell you to keep an eye out for this guy, and for once there are actual performance dates to plug for each disc, although they're in different cities. (Anyone reading this in either place is encouraged to let me know.)

On November 18: Johnston will host a Big Lift CD release at the Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco with a different band: Ben Goldberg (clarinet), Sheldon Brown (tenor sax, bass clarinet), David Ewell (bass) and Hamir Atwal (drums.

On December 2: The Nice Guy Trio will host their CD releaseat the Community Music Center in San Franciso.

On December 18: The Johnston's Gone To Chicago band will perform at the Hungry Brain in Chicago.

So keep an eye on this Johnston guy. And if, by some chance, someone reading this decides to check any of these shows out, tell them you read about it here.

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