J.J. Johnson

The Brass Orchestra

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J.J. Johnson finds himself at the helm of a dream band here -- a full brass orchestra with French horns, euphoniums, tubas, and a harp -- and gets to exploit its possibilities wherever they might lead. The results are beyond category, where the veteran trombonist's writing has a feathery richness, urbanity, and a depth charge in the bass reminiscent of, but not really indebted to, Gil Evans. There is plenty of straight-ahead jazz grooving but also several episodes of formal, almost classical writing, as in the suitably joyous "If I Hit the Lottery," and rigorous combinations of both, like the angular tribute to Béla Bartók, "Canonn for Bela." The generous Johnson doesn't even appear on a piece he commissioned from Robin Eubanks called "Cross Currents" -- Eubanks performs the sputtering trombone solo -- nor on Slide Hampton's blazing "Comfort Zone." He also revisits some of his early third stream experiments from the '50s and '60s; "Ballad for Joe" derives from his "Poem for Brass" and "Horn of Plenty" and "Ballade" from the Perceptions album (the latter two sound a bit staid under the current light). Johnson's own trombone solos are always imaginative, authoritative, and irresistibly swinging; at 72, he plays as well here as he ever did. This is a must-buy for all J.J. fans and those who thought that the third stream could never rise again.

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