Lucien Johnson Quartet in Whangarei – playing chamber music and all that jazz

New ZealandNew Zealand Lucien Johnson Quartet: (Lucien Johnson [tenor/soprano saxophone], Jonathon Crayford, [piano], Tom Callwood [double bass], Corey Champion [drums]). Old Library, Whangarei, New Zealand. 31.10.2020. (PSe)

Whangarei Music Society, like so many others around the globe, exists to promote the performance of live chamber music, which is universally regarded as a ‘classical’ sub-genre, isn’t it? The appearance at WMS in 2016 of jazz-men Ben Wilcock and the Jelly Rolls was apparently justified by their programme consisting of extemporisations on classic Cole Porter and George Gershwin melodies. This prompted me to build my review around the rather vexed question of whether, in an instance such as this, jazz can be considered an associate member of the classical club.

On this present occasion, WMS (in association with Chamber Music NZ) pushed the envelope a bit harder, setting before the audience the Lucien Johnson Quartet, a jazz group whose programme bore not even the merest hint of any ‘classical’ connection. The formerly vexed question underwent one of those ‘paradigm shift’ thingies and emerged as, ‘Can a jazz quartet be considered a chamber music group?’ After a little reflection, I had to admit that, at rock bottom, regardless of style, any music that fits comfortably into the ‘chamber’ environment is chamber music.

Whilst I will cheerfully enjoy a bit of jazz if it happens to cross my path, I am by no stretch of the imagination an aficionado of the art, and hence not ideally equipped to write this review. But I am going to do it anyway. For starters, these are no mean musicians. Lucien Johnson is a saxophonist and composer of long and varied experience, having played with numerous jazz legends and iconic bands in places such as Paris, Haiti, Addis Ababa and New York (plus the occasional world tour). His composing covers a wide spectrum, from jazz album tracks through piano pieces for a Parisian celebration of Ravel to music for symphony orchestra. Jonathan Crayford is a pianist and composer of comparably long and varied experience, working with a whole roster of respected musicians in places such as New York, Paris and Spain; and writing pieces for solo piano and bands, along with numerous film soundtracks.

For two decades a leading Wellington bass-player, Tom Callwood has performed with many international stars and is in demand as a regular member of several groups; whilst Cory Champion, although as a recent graduate of the NZ School of Music is a comparative newcomer, is already gaining wide recognition as a sensitive jazz-drummer.

On this showing, Lucien is a consummate saxophonist; making his instrument seem but an extension of himself. He is fluent, articulate, inventive, expressive, and blessed with that apparently essential ability to ‘bend’ notes as naturally as if he were just whistling. What is more, he never strays into what I think of as ‘lazy jazz’: tossing off rapid runs and note-spinning to pre-defined (and well-rehearsed?) patterns that have no evident relationship to the musical subject in hand. “What? Never?” you ask. “Well . . . hardly ever,” I reply (with apologies to the brave, brave captain of the Pinafore).

Jonathan impressed me every bit as much; similarly wasting no time on useless twiddly bits or – what I regard as – ‘Liberace flourishes’, he was never less than keenly focussed and imaginatively musical, even when his role was ostensibly accompaniment. Intriguingly, Jonathan performed with his feet clad in only a pair of socks. I also observed the slightly more obvious fact that Tom’s double bass was amplified, although my ears found no cause for complaint about that. Really, in such company a lone Big Fiddle does need a bit of a boost if the player’s art is not to go for nothing – and Tom’s flying fingers displayed so much fine art that I sometimes wished that the others would shush up a bit. From these observations, you might conclude that there was a fair amount of polyphony in the air – and if so, then I think that I would agree with you.

It was hard to believe that Cory was standing in for the group’s usual drummer (Chris O’Connor, who had a prior engagement), so well did he fit in with his colleagues. I could well understand the epithet, ‘sensitive’: watching the others like a hawk, his coordinating pulse was always there, yet he was ever weaving rhythmic and timbral variations; even his big ‘drum break’ (cadenza?) was not disproportionately climactic, being a spellbinding solo full of skill and invention, and lacking only ‘virtuosic’ noise and bluster.

As far as I could tell, they played ‘proper’ jazz, by which I mean the music we heard wasn’t through-composed but improvisation on a given theme. Of course, LJQ could have been playing entire pieces from memory, but without going to two separate performances (and having prodigious recall), how can one tell? Well, nobody used any sheet music, apart from the piano, whereon was a single sparsely populated sheet, apparently some sort of harmonic ‘ground map’ for the current piece. If they had been playing from memory, wouldn’t this have been superfluous? I reckon so. It also implied a style of improvisation much more sophisticated than riffing (is that the right word?), passacaglia-fashion, on an 8-bar tune – which seemed to tally with what we could hear.

This caused me a slight problem; the basic melodies, comparatively speaking, lacked distinction – that’s distinction in the sense of strongly marked, individual characters – which lack must inform the whole. However, this problem is not theirs but mine; nevertheless, if LJQ decide to play more ‘chamber music’, perhaps they might bear it in mind? In passing, the fact that most of the pieces in the programme were composed by Lucien reminded me of an as yet unanswered question that has been nagging me for decades: in ‘proper’ jazz, as opposed to works written in a jazz style, what exactly is meant by ‘composed’? Is it just the few bars of germinal melody – and if not, then what?

This aside it leaves me at liberty to wax lyrical – and ‘lyrical’ could well be the keynote of LJQ’s performances: never mind the titles of the pieces, just bask in the evocative rhapsodies unfolding before your very ears. To get the idea, try for size these selected snippets from my notes: ‘atmospheric’, ‘like separate, independent strands weaving and evolving’, ‘moody fade-out’, ‘whimsical little theme elaborated first on sax., then piano (very neatly), some intriguing metric shifts’, ‘bass solo covers fair range – varied (pizz.) attacks, swooping slides, plucking behind the bridge etc.’, ‘music takes on spacious feel, with conflicting background from bass and (esp.) drums’, ‘sax. soliloquising over a very gentle, hypnotic, “cool” sort of jazz’, ‘bright, lively, set over ground-bass (with elaborations) on piano and bass’, ‘alternating chords get oppressive – relieved by climax, loosening up piano’s juices’, ‘real up-tempo stuff, bass plunking away, drums clattering, piano and sax. romping around with tune – develops into quite a party-piece, players just “hanging out” and having fun!’

Despite my reflections on the musical genre, I thoroughly enjoyed this absorbing programme. As musicians LJQ are skilful, quick-witted, intelligent, and resourceful. What they set before us was not great music, but music made great by great music-making – and that in itself is a very considerable achievement. I for one would be happy – nay, more than happy – if the Lucien Johnson Quartet were to do many more ‘chamber music recitals’!

Paul Serotsky

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