Eight years of being an Angeleno hasn’t taken any of the Chicago vibe out of flutist/saxophonist/keyboardist Josh Johnson, whether you associate that vibe with experimental nu-jazz or old-school blues and soul. Along with playing several emotive roles (alto sax, clarinet, flute, Mellotron) across several albums for Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker, Johnson has been the bandleader for Texas R&B singer Leon Bridges and a featured, sprightly sax man on trumpeter Marquis Hill’s postbop best. Freedom Exercise, his debut as a leader, demonstrates that, like his heroes Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, he understands how to make space amid clutter, calm within disarray, and lasting signature sounds.
First and foremost, Johnson is an intriguing composer, with a sense of play in all but his darkest moments. What closes in, gloomily, on the buzzing blip-hop of “Return Recoil” opens up brighter and fresher than funky daisies on “New July” and “False Choice.” Plus, Johnson and crew keep these tracks tight; all but two songs are under five minutes.
Commencing with the wobbly-stringed “Nerf Day,” Johnson does triple duty—doubling his gentle sax sound while adding a scratchy, synthetic ambience to brushed-drum proceedings. Rhythms grow tense and his sequenced keyboards more frenetic in thrak-attacking King Crimson fashion on “856,” before we head to “Western Ave” and its twinkling cinematic blues. Drummer Aaron Steele and bassist Anna Butterss loll behind Johnson on much of Freedom Exercise; the leader’s true foil is six-stringer Gregory Uhlmann. Whether on the hypnotic “Love Supreme”-like “Bowed,” the cool, clammy “Punk,” or the easy, breezy, Nino Rota-esque “Simple Song,” the twang-bar guitar king and the gently boiling saxophonist bob, weave, moan, and focus on each other’s intricate line readings in friendly oneupmanship. A.D. AMOROSI