As was said in a prior article entitled, “Coup d’Estate?” the Russ Johnson Quartet was expected to bring an explorative, experimental style of free jazz to the Jazz Estate. The Quartet lived up to that expectation Saturday night. Although there are more experimental, more “avant-garde” jazz groups, Johnson’s Quartet represented a more contemporary, more experimental kind of jazz than is usually on offer at the Estate.
The Quartet’s material was composed, but done in such a way that there were dips into free time and noise, and moments of a Dixieland kind of free-form improvising. Those avant-garde elements were mixed with moments of what might be called a “clarity” emerging from the dips into formlessness. But one should not get the impression, that the compositions themselves did not have a formal structure guiding the way: a melodic framework helped to bring coherence to those dips into formlessness. There was, in fact, a balance between melodic consistency and free form elements.
The experiemental aspects of the compositions occasionally brought out looks of puzzlement and even laughter from the audience. But the overall reaction was very positive. One could hear members of the audience eschewing any taste for smooth jazz, and occasional feints toward connoisseurship could be heard between sets. They opened up with an up-tempo tune in 4/4 time that had a definite strut to it. Tim Daisy’s drumming ratta-tat-tatted out the quick pace that got the audience moving with the music. But then, just as the tempo reached a real flow, the drumming would stop completely leaving the rhythm entirely implied and in the background, before it would pick up again. It was a great way to get the audience into listening to the rhythm from different points of view, and feeling it on different levels. Another interesting thing to see was that the
Quartet would not wait for the audience to quiet down before getting into the next tune. Instead, they would play into the growing noise level of the audience, and accelerate or decelerate the tempo with the energy of the audience. This is a technique that seems to have been used by big bands in the 40’s and 50’s.
This was a classic night for the Jazz Estate: the energy was at a very high level and a conviviality that comes with good spirits flowed into a mix that spiked the energy of a really hip live jazz performance. There was, at times, a good amount of vocal encouragement from the audience for the players, and clapping with the beat. Those are the kinds of elements that have made live jazz performances a favorite choice for weekend outings going back to the 50’s and 60’s when it became established as the sound of nightlife for mature audiences. Jazz brings with it a mix of both sophistication and freedom. That mix seems to flow very well into the east side scene.