Howard Johnson & Gravity – Testimony – Tuscarora

Howard JOHNSON and Gravity – Testimony – Tuscarora 17-001,  53:39, (3/3/17) ****:

(Howard Johnson: BB-flat tuba, baritone sax, pennywhistle/ Velvet Brown; Ens. leader, F-tuba/ Dave Bergeron; E-flat tuba/ Earl McIntyre; E-flat tuba/ Joseph Daley; BB-flat tuba/ Bob Stewart; CC tuba/ Carlton Holmes; piano/ Melissa Slocum; bass/ Buddy Williams; drums)

Low rumbles, virtuosic soloing and great charts feature in newest Howard Johnson tuba ensemble session.

At an impressionable moment in my youth, I encountered a stupendous work of art, Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, by Charles Mingus. In place of the leader’s bass, there was a massed rank of low brass, including tuba, that thrummed and growled with dark menace against the caterwauling soloist. I recall a hip elder remarking that this ensemble represented an absolute standard for “bottom” in a big band. That indelible, bone-rattling sound came back to me as I surveyed Howard Johnson’s 2017 Gravity, which features an ensemble of six tubas, and not at the expense of the doublebass. It looks like the bottom has only now been reached.

With all due respect to that incomparable musician Mr. Howard Johnson, I was initially skeptical. Having reached an age of ripeness, if not deliquescence, I have an aversion to novelty acts and gimmicks. I walk right on by a ten year old playing Ride of the Walkyries on the kazoo;  Youtube exhibitionists of all kinds make me yawn. What one needs is originality harnessed to deep musical values and creative vision. Informed by an infallible critic at Audiophile Audition that this was not a novelty act but rather one of the great releases of the year, I decided to give this recording a chance. [And you’re not alone to think so…Ed.]

The tuba chorus hits the tricky dotted melody in the downbeat and the floorboards vibrate appropriately. But rather than a wall of brass effect, we get a nicely textured sound from the tripled pairs of EE-flat, BB-flat and CC tubas. A medium-fast groove spurs the maestro into action. HJ seems determined to give a compact and authoritative demonstration of all that the tuba is capable of. Whoops, bellows, fast-tongued bebop lines, hurtling arpeggios, nothing is left out–except the flatulent “oom-pahs” of the marching band. Meanwhile, the five tuba outfit whips up the frenzy with swinging accents and punching counter-melodies. The opening number is rousing indeed, but the question is: how much of this can we take, and can the tuba, (abetted by a very crisp rhythm section) carry the load throughout the whole record?

As it happens we get an immediate reprieve on the second track, paying homage to the New Orleans tradition. It is a blues song with Nedra Johnson giving a straight rendering of her own clever Working Hard for the Jones. The ensemble is slick, and the whole band chips in on the chorus. It is deeply rooted in the blues tradition and a fine piece of theater, but comparatively modest compared to the first track.

Immediately, we are back in deeper waters with a long treatment of McCoy Tyner’s Fly With the Wind. After a brooding rumination, leader and tubas charge into the head. HJ solos across the form while the band swings mightily. In a nice reverse of the normal trajectory of the solo which rises up to its high note, Mr. Johnson drifts downward in search of his low B flat, on which he lands with a splat. Dave Bergeron takes up the next several choruses with his E flat instrument, showing the same defiance of gravity while expressing the gravitas of the song. While, just today, I had to hastily construct the category of “best tuba solo,” I could not decide which one of the many on this record to put at the top.

Natural Woman from Carole King follows in a slow churchy swaying rhythm. Velvet Brown plays the sweet notes, against tight harmonies and soul jazz gestures from drums and piano.

Another McCoy Tyner tune, High Priest, tests the ensembles unison skills on a tricky chart. HJ enters on baritone sax played in the old style ear-rasping way. After a chorus or two of straight ahead playing, we get solos from Earl McIntyre and the hard-working bass which lead to a the much rehearsed head.

The penny whistle comes out on the light pop tune by HJ entitled Little Black Lucille. It is a shrill instrument even when played well, but it does have its connections to the New Orleans tradition and is set off nicely by the big billows of brass over which it flits and flutters with the attention span of a dragonfly. It is an exasperating and odd little number. Mercifully, the ensemble returns for Evolution and do what the band does best, subtle counterpoints, antiphony and tuba-driven swing. There are four solos, each modest in length, but all models of concise eloquence. Following a brawling solo by Bob Stewart, which provokes a great deal of commentary from the others, a piano solo brings a respite.

The album ends with Way Back Home, a Wilton Felder chart on which that other great legend of jazz tuba tradition, Bob Stewart, takes a long and euphoric solo with some spirited call and response. This is unabashed dance music and if you are not up and moving to this number, you should probably have some of your main systems examined.

This is a record of great charm and vigor. Setting aside what it takes to become a tuba virtuoso, the amount of work put into these ensemble arrangements is worthy of highest commendation. It is also the uncontested winner in the “biggest bottom” category. Frankly, I hope it maintains its status there, for I resolutely refuse to listen to an ensemble with more than six tubas (unless, of course, it is really, really good…).

TrackList: Testimony, Working Hard for the Jones; Fly with the Wind; Natural Woman; High Priest; Little Black Lucille; Evolution; Way Back Home

—Fritz Balwit

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