Friday, June 29, 2018

NZ Jazz: Lucien Johnson + 5 - West of the Sun


Lucien Johnson + 5: West of the Sun 

Johnson (ts) Lex French (trpt) Nick Van Dijk (trb) Jonathan Crayford (p) Tom Callwood (b) Chris O'Connor (d) 2016
New Zealand Jazz
I still find it tricky writing about recordings when I know many of the individual's involved (whether they be teachers, colleagues, friends... or all of the above as is the case here). As a result, this post almost got put on hold - but here it is!

I've known Lucien almost 20 years. When I started music school it was immediately clear that he was one of the better musician's around (and he knew what that place was about). I remember being blown away hearing him play Warne Marsh's solo on “All The Things You Are” (from the Copenhagen trio recordings) and his and arrangements and compositions were always interesting. He spoke his mind (and ruffled some feathers) but I always found him approachable and a great source for listening suggestions (it was Lucien who encouraged me to check out Steve Lacy).

Although Lucien hasn't recorded a ton, there is plenty of variety in his output - The Night's Plutonian Shore, Stinging Nettles, Captain Blood (I haven't heard the latter in ages) are all very different. So was it a surprise to see his latest recording change things up again and feature three horns and rhythm section playing six original compositions? Not really, but it didn't disappoint either. The opening track, “Clarion Call,” set the mood for the album and grabbed my attention. West of the Sun appears upbeat on the surface, but a darkness also is present, a combination that drew me in from the beginning. 

As with Jim Langabeer's Secret Islands, I found Lucien's choice of personnel was really on point. The sextet is comprised of players that I've heard live quite a bit and they meld together here to form a very cohesive unit. Chris O'Connor has long been one of my favourite drummers on the NZ scene and he doesn't disappoint. He gets a little room to move on the closing track, “Zapata,” but other than that, he's quite understated. However, the taste and groove is always there. Supportive and creative – it's hard to ask for more than that. 

It would have been nice to hear a little more from Nick Van Dijk as his playing mines deep and captures the essence of “Asturias.” His solo features a reaching lyricism, not a quality I hear all that often but one that I find very appealing. There have been many occasions this past month when I have looped this solo. I'd love to hear Nick get oppourtunities to be able to stretch out in this manner more often.

Lex French's tone and playing during the obbligato over the tenor and trombone on “El Cid” fits the vibe of the piece to a tee. His solo work is strong across the album and I enjoy the contrast between the tenor and trumpet in terms of color and feel. Both play some slinky lines but Lucien tends to be a bit more laid back and perhaps Lex is a little more notey. 

Sometimes I find Tom Callwood's tone is a little ampy but I enjoy his playing. “Asturias” opens with Joe strumming solo bass and he does a fine job of setting the mood. His accompaniment during Jonathan Crayford's solo on the title track hits the spot. The piano solo itself is very tasty and a study in not overstating things. Fans of jazz in New Zealand need no introduction to Crayford and it will come as no surprise that his playing is top-notch. I know he was an important part in Lucien's development so it's nice hearing them recording together. His playing here was a reminder how much I need to give a listen to his two trio albums on Rattle (more to add to the list!).

Lucien's woody, dark tone with some buzz and ring to the edges really slots into the overall vibe of the album. His solos are strong throughout as he creates weaving lines with some nice bolder melodic interjections that grab your ear. The title track (with its stripped down line-up sans trumpet and trombone) features a very mature solo that flows on very nicely from Crayford's solo. It's expressive ballad playing with no need for lots of flash – he cuts things back to the bone. The “lazy” opening phrase of his solo on “El Cid” puts a smile on my face, and it leads into a well-paced solo. His writing is also very strong and he utilizes the instrumentation to bring a depth of sound to the ensemble passages without weighing things down. It's been refreshing listening to a three-horn front line. They get a nice blend and the shout chorus between the tenor and piano solos “Light Shaft” is a very nice touch.

I was pleased to see West of the Sun amongst the finalists for Jazz Album of the Year. In my book, the LP length is a bonus as it's a great length for listening and remaining focussed. So head over to Bandcamp and pick up a copy. If Lucien has any vinyl left I might have to grab one next time I see him.

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