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J.J. Johnson: The Complete Columbia Small Group Sessions

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Major labels receive abuse for their jazz policies and practices. Musicians and fans make accusations of inconsistency, opportunism and venality, often for good reason. Still, their resources create the potential for support of important work, and when they reach that potential it can be on a scale that influences the course of music.

Columbia Records has contributed its share to the lore of superficiality and boneheadedness among the majors. As an example, in the blinking of an eye, it signed, failed to support, dropped and forgot Ryan Kisor, possibly the most brillant of the new crop of trumpet players. Over the years, to the company’s credit, Columbia has also maintained a few major artists who were not big sellers. It’s library of recordings by J.J. Johnson is a major element of Columbia’s legacy. A few years ago, Columbia reissued on CD a mere nine tracks of the hundred or so that Johnson recorded in his four-and-a-half years with the label. It remained for the admirable Mosaic company to gather, organize and release the trombonist’s body of work for Columbia.

Johnson, with only Bill Harris as a peer, was the most significant trombonist since Jack Teagarden. In the mid-’40s, he expanded the tendencies already apparent in his work as a swing player and quickly evolved into a bop musician, the trombone equivalent of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He accomplished the technical feat of mastering a language that experts thought the trombone was physically incapable of speaking. As always with extraordinary talent, technique was only half the story. Johnson’s solos had expressivity, warmth and narrative qualities that lifted him far above facility. He was the man every modern trombonist emulated.

On the strength of Johnson’s artistic importance and, perhaps, the novelty of his partnership with fellow trombonist Kai Winding, George Avakian signed Johnson to Columbia in 1956. Johnson recorded for the label until early 1961, in one album with Winding and in a succession with his own quintets and sextets. The Winding tracks are not in the Mosaic set, but it has all of the others, including 16 previously unissued.

Hank Jones, Cedar Walton and Victor Feldman are substantially present on piano, and there is track after track of Tommy Flanagan, in the ’50s already a paragon of taste, subtlety and harmonic ingenuity. The bassists are Percy Heath, Wilbur Little, Paul Chambers, Spanky DeBrest, Arthur Harper and Sam Jones; the drummers Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Tootie Heath and Louis Hayes. One of the pleasures of the collection is to hear the development of the remarkable tenor saxophonist and flutist Bobby Jaspar. His and Johnson’s front-line work together was like the product of one mind. Cornetist Nat Adderley, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan were also in Johnson’s band at various stages, all young, all fired up about new approaches to improvisation.

The rhythm sections-Flanagan, Little and Elvin Jones-Flanagan, Chambers and Roach-Walton, DeBrest and Heath-Feldman, Sam Jones and Hayes-were state of the art. Some of Roach’s most cohesive and exciting playing was in Johnson’s band. Jones’ 1956 polyrhythms may surprise those unfamiliar with his pre-Coltrane playing.

Most astonishing of all, though, is Johnson, one of the three or four greatest jazz trombonists and an arranger whose resourcefulness and imagination are on full display in his writing for these small units. As Loren Shoenberg emphasizes in his thorough notes, Johnson’s craftsmanship in every detail of an arrangement produces orchestration, just as surely as if he were writing for a big band. Arrangements like those for “I Should Care,” “Never Let Me Go,” “Bird Song” and “Fatback” are models for small band writing.

Anyone listening to this set will be quickly disabused of the clichŽd notion that because it is clean and precise, Johnson’s work lacks passion. There is plenty of high, fast playing here, but his tone and articulation never allow it to be cold. His solos on “Stardust” and “In a Little Provincial Town” are among dozens of examples of his warmth. His humor runs to wryness in quotes, and if for a period he was obsessed with a certain phrase from “Elmer’s Tune” and played it in solo after solo, he got over it. In any case, what makes Johnson’s soloing exemplary is not technique, or humor, or even warmth. It is something that encompasses all of those attributes and more. It is the continuity and logic of his story-telling. He is one of the premier jazz tale-spinners. This set is full of fascinating stories.

The sound quality of this music, high in the first place, is remastered with digital clarity. The packaging and production maintain Mosaic’s high standards. Producer Michael Cuscuna deep-sixed the annoying contrived “live” announcements and applause that for nearly 40 years marred the music that originally appeared on the J.J. In Person album.