J.J. Johnson

The Memorial Album

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When J.J. Johnson passed away in 2001, he left a legacy as simply the greatest technically gifted and most admired jazz trombonist in history without much valid argument to the contrary. This compilation features some very good tracks with Johnson as a sideman in or leader from the late '40s up to 1957, as a full-blown frontman in the '70s and '80s, and in small duos or trios up to 1983. Discographical sleuths will note this is not an all-time greatest-"hits" package, due to the absence of his great Savoy, Blue Note, Bethlehem, RCA Bluebird, Columbia, Impulse or 1990s Verve label efforts. These tracks are collected from the family of Prestige, Riverside, Milestone, and Pablo recordings, and while all selections here are quite good, they are not his definitive works. Still, everything here is well rendered, and a few pieces are indeed definitive. The pre-1957 tracks include the Coleman Hawkins deeply rich, horn-saturated septet from 1946 tackling Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You" with Johnson, Fats Navarro, Hank Jones, Max Roach, and the completely obscure alto saxophonist Porter Kilbert. Johnson is teamed with Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham in the swirling lines of "Elysee," and Sonny Stitt in the slow "Blue Note" both featuring John Lewis. The Charles Mingus film noir style obscurity "Chazzanova," with four trombonists, the true bop classic "Blue 'n' Boogie" with Miles Davis, Lucky Thompson, and Horace Silver, Johnson, and Kai Winding's take of "Bags Groove," and Benny Golson's unusual harmonics during "Hymn to the Orient" with Dorham and Roach -- all have to be considered standouts. The compilation leaps to 1977 as "Horace" is a soul-jazz bopper with Nat Adderley on trumpet and Billy Childs playing Fender Rhodes electric piano. The memorable post-bop "Pinnacles" has what must be an all-time great configuration with Joe Henderson, Tommy Flanagan on piano and clavinet, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Billy Higgins in tow. The CD ends with "Concepts in Blue," marred by a synthesizer add-on, three intimate sessions, two of them duets with Joe Pass and a trio featuring Pass and Oscar Peterson, plus the finale "Soft Winds" in a sextet featuring tinkling percussion, a great contribution from Kenny Barron, and Johnson alongside fellow 'bonist Al Grey. Though the first half of this collection is pretty solid, the second is hit or miss. Though all cuts remain credible, the uneven nature of this collection, and its lack of a comprehensive focus, makes this an incomplete but still tasteful look at the mighty career of the great J.J. Johnson.

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