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Howard Johnson and Gravity: Testimony (Tuscarora)

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Howard Johnson and Gravity: "Testimony"
Howard Johnson and Gravity: “Testimony”

For decades, Howard Johnson has played the tuba with the kind of agility and treble-strafing power seldom associated with the low-register ax. Testimony documents the 75-year-old Johnson’s continuing vitality as a player, and offers yet another testament to his instrument’s viability in modern jazz.

Gravity, Johnson’s choir of low-brass horns, turns in appealingly rich and dark textures, beginning with the title track, the first of several on which the leader shows off his chops as an improviser, bouncing over the midtempo groove provided by pianist Carlton Holmes, bassist Melissa Slocum and drummer Buddy Williams. Johnson handily takes 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” finds the leader switching to his other main instrument, baritone saxophone, for a quick solo turn.

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 “A Natural Woman,” a showcase for the mellifluous playing of Velvet Brown, whose F tuba comes off as a trombone. And Johnson takes to the penny whistle on his “Little Black Lucille.”

Some of the disc’s richest, most sonorous tones can be heard on Bob Neloms’ “Evolution.” That cut opens with unaccompanied brass, in a passage somewhat reminiscent of Gil Evans’ arrangements, before shifting to the head and vigorous solos by tubamen Johnson, Bargeron, Earl McIntyre and Bob Stewart, and pianist Holmes, who quotes “A Love Supreme” in his spotlight. Wilton Felder’s “Way Back Home” caps the set with a welcome round of downhome funk and more tuba acrobatics. The group modulates up a step at the end, amping the feel-good nature of a disc with plenty of inspired playing and loads of low-end gravitas.

Originally Published