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Jeff Johnson Trio: Free

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Bassist Johnson is admired for his work with modern mainstream musicians like pianists Jessica Williams, Hal Galper and Jack Brownlow. Here, in a different milieu, he has produced the quietest far-out album I’ve ever heard. Johnson frees himself for unfettered explorations with soprano and tenor saxophonist Hans Teuber and drummer Billy Mintz. The surfaces of their music are placid. Volume and dynamics levels are generally low; Mintz doesn’t break out a stick during the entire set. Yet the trio draws the listener into blends and layers of expressive free playing that rise out of mutual attentiveness and finely attuned musical reflexes.

In his notes, Johnson identifies “Shadow Me” as pure improvisation. The other tracks, with one exception, have the flavor and effect of free playing even when they are established with palpable melodies like that of Johnson’s rangy “Chariots for Anthony.” Randy Weston’s “Hi-Fly” is presented in allusions rather than complete exposition of the melody. The three play off its rhythmic implications more than they do its harmonies. In Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade,” Teuber plays the melody mostly straight and recognizably while Johnson weaves around and through it, and Mintz ruminates almost imperceptibly in the background. Then Johnson plays a virtuoso solo. The respectful audience at Seattle’s Old Town Alehouse is barely detectable. It is refreshing to hear a location jazz recording that is unmarred by exhibitionist yelling and whistling.