Jeff Johnson: Open to the Moment

Originally published in Earshot Jazz June 2012

Jeff Johnson does not typically plot lines of bass notes on each beat. No. He’s a musical surfer dude. Atop his fingerboard, he scans musical swells – open to possibilities, sensing movement. When the Zen is right, he fearlessly carves melodies in breaking sound waves. Leaning forward. Cutting left. Gliding. Dancing in the spray. With equal measure of instinct and intellect, it appears easy. In sync, in sound, inside the music.

This balance comes from a life of no regrets. Pursuing his muse, Johnson faced down demons that haunt pioneering artists. “You could say I’ve explored as far out in the universe as I could go,” says Johnson. The quest becomes music. “I want to hear searching.”

Johnson is not alone in the search. He finds other open minded collaborators along his path and builds deep musical relationships. Standouts include drummers Philly Joe Jones, Tad Britton, Billy Mintz, and John Bishop, saxophonist Hans Teuber, guitarist John Stowell, pianists Art Resnick, Randy Porter, Bill Anschell, and Hal Galper.

Johnson was born on December 11, 1954 in Minneapolis. Guitar launched him musically at age nine. He worked the twin cities scene with his union card and an electric bass, playing six nights a week at age fifteen. At seventeen he joined saxophonist Irv Williams on a seven night a week gig at the St. Paul Hilton and tested his wings on upright bass.

A mutual connection put Johnson in touch with Philly Joe Jones. “Joe sent me out to listen to you,” said a guy in the audience one night. In the fall of 1975, Johnson got the call to join Jones in Philadelphia.

Migrating between intermittent gigs on the East Coast, Johnson recalls, “I was desperately learning what I didn’t know. I could play but I wasn’t always hearing what was going on.”

Jones switched band members depending on who was available. One night the saxophonist could be bebopper Hank Mobley. Another night it could be the freer energy of Byard Lancaster. “The music changed based on the musicians,” says Johnson. He learned flexibility and the importance of assembling compatible ensembles. “Eventually the money ran out so I headed back to Minneapolis after a year.”

Johnson frequented all night sessions at the home of pianist Art Resnick. “We would play these wild heads then trip.” All kinds of music excited Johnson. “We played mainstream and avant guard. I loved all of it. I didn’t plant a flag on any of it.”

Starting in 1978, Johnson jumped from city to city. He answered a call to join the house band at a club called Bianca’s in Oklahoma City. Backing heavies like saxophonist Charlie Rouse and trumpeter Chet Baker, he stayed put for five years.

Johnson struck up a musical relationship with drummer Tad Britton. “He was raw,” says Johnson, “but his mind was open.” They set up a four-track recording deck and jammed in the wee hours. Donning headphones, Britton played Simmons electric drums and Johnson plugged his electric bass directly into the recorder. Soft clicks and muted buzzing where the only whispers neighbors might hear in adjacent apartments.

“That’s where we created the musical language that forms the basis of my playing,” says Johnson. “The melodic legato thing took over – just finding melodies.” Paralleling a spiritual pilgrimage, Johnson says, “Oklahoma was my Tibet.” Creative impulses came from nowhere, everywhere. A Midwest thunderstorm could stoke their playing. “There was no kind of jazz we had to like.”

One night at the club, Johnson was smitten by an “older, stately, picturesque, southern woman” in the audience. He walked up to Marcy Wheeland, told her how beautiful she looked, and walked away. They eventually developed a warm relationship. “I was the spaceman. She was the earth woman,” says Johnson. “She brought me down to the ground.” They married.

Johnson recorded “Letters for Marcy” on his debut recording Harbinger in 1984. It’s a slow, romantic, bass-on-top ballad. Johnson plays Fender electric bass with a wide dynamic range throughout the album. Fingers strong from playing upright bass, treble cranked, the hot signal pops percussive attacks, crisp runs, and sustained chords. The longest track on the album comes right after “Letters.” “Clues” is dedicated to the Voyager space probes. Johnson lays down a slow vamp while keyboardist Peter Krauss synthesizes sonic nebula in the atmospheric frequencies. Solo bass tracks “Cherokee” and “Nardis” hint at the voice we hear today from Johnson’s upright bass. Tempo is solid but never explicitly stated. Melody notes form a skeleton for embellishment. The phrases search for the best, elegant, heavy sounds – what Johnson calls “Cadillac notes.”

To get to gigs looking for “Cadillac notes” on his bass, Johnson actually drove a brown 1967 Cadillac Sedan de Ville with white leather interior and later a turquoise 1972 with white interior. One of the players on the Oklahoma scene advised, “Don’t ever worry about your crib. Keep your short and drapes together.” Translation: “You can always find a place to live but your car (‘shortcut’) and clothes require careful attention.”

Johnson and Marcy moved to San Diego, California in 1985. Johnson made music with drummer Billy Mintz, saxophonists Jon Gross and Charles McPherson, and pianist Art Resnick. He bounced back and forth between San Diego and Austin to play with saxophonists Tony Campisi and Alex Coke.

A road gig took Johnson through Seattle, home to one of his favorite longtime radio shows – Jazz After Hours hosted by Jim Wilke. Curious about the scene, Johnson wrote to Wilke asking for information. Wilke responded warmly and included the Earshot Jazz newsletter. Johnson relocated here in 1990.

Johnson checked out the Monday night sessions at Prosito in Tacoma and met drummer John Bishop. After overcoming local resistance to new players, Johnson joined Bishop, harmonica player Jay Mabin, and guitarist Tom McElroy. The gig lasted five years. Another steady gig with Bishop started in 1993 on Tuesdays at the Old Town Ale House in Ballard. That lasted eight years. A third steady job started in 1995 at the Fremont Noodle House with pianist Jon Alberts and drummer Tad Britton, recently relocated from Oklahoma City. After five years the trio moved to Thaiku in Ballard. Ten years later they moved to the Copper Gate.

In 1991 Johnson began a productive relationship with pianist Jessica Williams, making six recordings. Then Johnson connected with pianist Hal Galper at Port Townsend and they began touring in 1994. “That was prime time for me,” says Johnson. “We were going for broke.”

Galper worked with drummer Steve Ellington for forty years but had been cycling through bass players. “In the trio,” explains Galper, “the lead role switched frequently. That required a bass player to have a big radar. We took lots of chances.” With Johnson, says Galper, “We had such a ball. It was a match made in heaven.”

Johnson’s free spirit relaxed Galper’s approach. “It was the end of my Ahmad [Jamal] phase,” laughs Galper. “Everything was highly organized with signals and cues. Jeff loosened things up. We could play with less structure.”

And less tempo. Galper and Johnson both played free music in their formative years. Drummer John Bishop joined Galper and Johnson to improvise music that held together with chord progressions and phrasing, but tempo was optional. The musical palette mixes harmonic colors, melodic motion, and rhythmic density. The 2006 recording Furious Rubato documented the “intense, floating, up in the air” sound. “We are trying to make it vague,” says Galper.

Johnson explains what it takes to play this way in a YouTube video “Hal Galper’s New Trio Plays Rubato” filmed by Bret Primack. “You get to engage your intuitive nature right away,” says Johnson. “I mean if you’re not listening, you’re not going to be there, in that kind of setting. It’s not going to work out. Or if you are of a mind where you think it should be here and not there, so I’m going to push it to make it sure that I try to make it here, that stuff doesn’t work.”

But there is stuff that does work. “There are those special times when you just start doing something together, where you didn’t plan it,” says Johnson. “Everybody seems to just intuitively sense that this is the moment. And that happens a lot with my favorite players.”

Many of Johnson’s favorite players live in the Northwest. “I think he’s had a real impact on the way people play here,” says pianist Bill Anschell. “He’s no fan of technique for technique’s sake; he’s all about musicians listening to one another and interacting in the moment. I think there’s a pretty big contingent of Seattle players who have headed in that direction, due in part to his influence.”

When Johnson plays, it’s hard not to be influenced. He lives in the zone and his vibe draws you in. Guitarist John Stowell says, “He brings a great joy to the bandstand with his presence.” Bishop says, “Jeff is always there to get me out of whatever I get myself into.” Anschell admits, “He wears his heart on his sleeve, and when he smiles at you in the middle of a tune you can’t help but play better.”

Johnson appears on more than fifty recordings – seven as a leader, seven with Hal Galper, six with Jessica Williams and thirty six with other artists. The Art of Falling, with saxophonist Hans Teuber, drummer Billy Mintz, and pianist Randy Porter, is one of his favorites because “everything came into place.” A new recording with Hal Galper will be released this fall. Johnson is also enthusiastic about a project in which he returns to electric bass with Teuber, pianist Steve Moore, and drummer Eric Eagle.

“Music is not a recitation,” says Johnson. “It’s a discovery. That’s what I want to hear.”

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