Monday, October 10, 2005


J.J. Johnson, Turnpike.

In 1952, J.J. Johnson, the great bebop trombonist, accompanist to Count Basie and Benny Carter, was working in a Sperry Gyroscope factory inspecting blueprints.

The early 1950s was a sere time for jazz musicians: the big bands were through; Miles Davis, along with dozens of others, was sidelined by heroin; Charlie Parker was fading. Even Frank Sinatra was in limbo. Johnson, always a cautious family man at heart, opted to take a regular paying job.

But luckily he kept his affiliation with Blue Note Records and in 1953, things began to turn. Davis, a friend, had called up Johnson for a session in April, during which Davis recorded two Johnson compositions. Intrigued, Blue Note arranged Johnson to have his own session as a leader.

Call it kismet or simply evidence of the sheer number of top players available for sessions in those days, but Johnson's solo recording date in June featured an amazing collection of talent: the bright young trumpeter Clifford Brown, making only his third-ever recording session; the pianist John Lewis, who was in the process of assembling the Modern Jazz Quartet; the brothers Jimmy and Percy Heath (sax and bass, respectively); and the bop veteran Kenny Clarke on drums.

"Turnpike," a Johnson composition, features a startling, ominous introduction and a driving two-note theme reminscent of Thelonious Monk. The 22-year old Brown starts off the solos, sounding like he has been playing for decades, then comes Heath on tenor sax. Johnson's trombone solo is masterful--he moves as lightly as Brown did on the trumpet.

Recorded on June 22, 1953, in New York, and available on J.J. Johnson: The Eminent Vol. 1.

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