Tuesday, May 23, 2017

NZ Music Month: Lucien Johnson - Stinging Nettles

Johnson/Silva/Sato: Stinging Nettles (Improvising Beings)
Lucien Johnson (ts) Alan Silva (b) Makoto Sato (d) November 2006, Paris. 

Lucien was a year a head of me at music school (and light years a head of me as a musician!). Although back then he had the reputation of being a bit surly (probably because he wasn’t shy of sharing his opinion), I got a long with him quite well and enjoyed his playing too. He was a great source for album recommendations and made sure I checked out Steve Lacy.

NZ Music Month Norman Meehan
A couple of years ago I remember seeing that this trio had an album slated for release on HatArt. The release never happened and I forgot about it until I bumped into Stinging Nettles earlier this year. While I’ve heard a bit from Silva (initially via Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler recordings), I was unfamiliar with Sato until now.

Considering that Lucien met Silva at the recording session (he and Sato had been playing together for a bit before the session), the trio works really well together. They may burst out of the blocks on the title track but the album is not all just crash and bang (neither is the title track for that matter). Throughout the album there are moments of fire and reflection, melodicism and abstraction, as each improvisation takes its own shape. There’s a lot of listening going on.

The short phrases of  “Abora” give the piece lots of breathing room before a quiet drone emerges to round out the track. The rhythm section maintains a broken time feel throughout “Copper Sky” which has quite a pointed or jumpy start. As the piece develops Lucien mixes up longer phrases with distorted held tones and short bursts. 

“Family of Silva” gradually unfolds. Solo bass opens the piece, Lucien adds a delicate, economic, melodic approach, the drums eventually join in and the trio create an swing feel with a nice push and pull between bass and drums without sacrificing forward momentum. “Pieces of Eight” features high register wails from the sax and arco bass throughout as the drums rumble beneath, while the quiet, minimal “Ice Shelf” finds another side of abstraction via high register arco bass, spacious use of cymbals, and a whispering, breathy saxophone. The fire returns on “Burnt Fingers.” Flurries of notes from the sax, unexpected changes in pulse from the bass, and clattering drums (not a bad thing….it was the only word I could think of!) give the listen plenty to tune in to.

The album wraps up with “Rhyme nor Reason” which has a wandering quality that appeals to me - unhurried but going somewhere. Lucien paces himself well really well and hints at a melodic fragment throughout, bringing continuity to his improvisation. One thing I spent some time focusing on this week is Lucien’s varied tone color - subtone, distorted growls, altissimo, brightness/darkness, throaty resonance, clean, dynamics and shifting vibrato - something I want to work on a bit more in my own playing.

Lucien is featured in Norman Meehan’s book, New Zealand Jazz Life, which I have been re-reading in bits and pieces this month (the chapters on Jim Langabeer, Anthony Donaldson, and Lucien). Lucien speaks about the impact Alan Silva had on him and, as always, has plenty of other interesting things to say too. I particularly like his idea that arts funding should be to directed to areas with more long term benefits like building the community and audience (such as funding venues that can host many artists over a period of time rather than one-off projects that quickly fizzle out). It’s a good read - check it out!

The chapter on Lucien is subtitled, “Jazz is not music for ambience.” This could not be more accurate in the case of the expressive, yet thoughtful, music on Stinging Nettles

You can read previous NZ Music Month posts here: C.L. Bob and Bleakley/Crayford/Donaldson
NZ Music Month

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