By Devon Wendell
What could be better than trombonist J.J. Johnson joined with Clifford Brown, Jimmy Heath, John Lewis, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke all in one band? I can’t think of anything at the moment.
This was the band on J.J. Johnson The Eminent Volume One on Blue Note Records, recorded on June 22, 1953. No one spoke the language of bebop on the trombone better than J.J. Johnson. This album exemplifies Johnson’s unparalleled contributions to bebop and its sub-genre hard-bop beautifully.
It also gives you a chance to hear a young Clifford Brown (before The Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet) who was already one of the most masterful and eloquent trumpeters on the scene.
The album opens with a delightful reading of Gigi Gryce’s “Capri.” Johnson’s arrangement is sweet and elegant but still swings like nobody’s business. Johnson’s solo sings and dances gently around the melody line. Jimmy Heath’s tenor sax solo is frenetic and burning. Heath had (and still has) the ability to play fast but make every single note heard with true precision and clarity. Clifford Brown takes off like a ball of lighting. His solo is the most impressive here (and that’s saying a lot.) Although you can still hear the influence of the late Fats Navarro in his playing, you can hear Brown growing into his own voice with each beautifully executed trumpet line.
Many jazz musicians had already made the haunting Davis-Ramirez-Sherman ballad “Lover Man” a classic, such as Billie Holiday and Bird. But Johnson’s rendition on this album always makes me cry. It’s a stunning work of beauty. His solo is one of the great recorded trombone ballad performances of all time. I’d love to hear a truly great singer try to emulate Johnson’s “Lover Man” solo. John Lewis’ piano work is perfectly tasteful and melodic. Jimmy Heath and Clifford Brown harmonize to the changes softly behind Johnson, Lewis, Percy Heath, and Clarke.
On Johnson’s up-tempo piece “Turnpike,” “Brownie” and Jimmy Heath soar. Heath quotes a few of Bird’s alto lines on tenor sax. The energy of the band is infectious. Kenny Clarke’s drumming and Percy Heath’s bass lines can make anyone swing harder than ever and both are in top form here.
This Johnson original is an example of what a brilliant composer/arranger he truly was. His sensitive, romantic horn arrangements were at times reminiscent of Tadd Dameron’s greatest charts from the ‘40s and ‘50s. Johnson understood how to transform the big band bop sound to fit smaller groups like this magnificent sextet.
John Lewis’ “Sketch” is a gorgeously tender ballad. Lewis plays a more gospel flavored solo over the changes, creating a lush yet dark atmosphere. You can hear traces of Roy Eldridge during Brown’s brief muted trumpet solo.
And of course a ballad is the perfect vehicle for Johnson to play the most beautifully soulful and thoughtful lines on his trombone. Johnson and the band’s version of “It Could Happen To You” is another fine example of this. Johnson’s spacious and often beautifully stark lyricism on the trombone isn’t far from what Miles Davis (whom recorded with Johnson many times during this period) was doing on the trumpet.
The album finishes with a relaxed, swinging bebop version of “Get Happy.” Johnson’s solo is much harder and faster than on the previous album tracks. Jimmy Heath and Brown take off with wild abandon. This is an example of early ‘50s bop at its very best.
J.J. Johnson The Eminent Volume One is not only historically important in that it features J.J. Johnson playing with Clifford Brown (who died tragically 3 years later in a car crash)
But it also showcases some of J.J. Johnson’s most innovative work with some of the greatest musicians from the bebop era. This is essential listening.