Thursday, April 06, 2017

Howard Johnson and Gravity Testimony

Howard Johnson and Gravity
Tuscarora Records

Nate Chinen proclaimed in the New York Times in 2006 that Howard Johnson was the individual "most responsible for the tuba's current status as a full-fledged jazz instrument." Certainly in more than five decades, his musicianship, invention and imagination has lifted the tuba to its present position as more than a novelty or simply being part of the early history of jazz. He played with the ensembles of Charles Mingus, Carla Bley and Gil Evans (to name a few) as well as a founding member of the Saturday Night Band and pop icons like Paul Simon and Taj Mahal.

Gravity is a tuba-centered band whose current membership includes other tuba players Velvet Brown, Joe Bargeron, Earl McIntyre, Joseph Daley, and Bob Stewart with a rhythm section including Carlton Holmes on piano, Melissa Slocum on bass, and Buddy Williams on drums. Joe Exley guests on tuba for 5 of the 8 songs while Nedra Johnson wrote and sang one number. McIntyre, Daley and Stewart are long-time associates and members of Gravity and the four appeared with Johnson as part of Taj Mahal's Tuba Band (Taj has sung, performed and recorded with Gravity as well in the past).

Johnson contributed a couple of originals and the handsome arrangements here and the presence of the rhythm section contributes to the attractiveness of the performances. The title track opens this on a lovely fashion with first his percolating solo followed by one from Bargeron with the other low brass adding to the atmosphere with swinging backing and solos from pianist Holmes and a short drum break from Williams as the ensemble takes this number out with some gruff tuba. Up next is a jaunty blues "Working for the Jones" with a very nice vocal from Howard's daughter, Nedra who sings about doing things she swore she would never do. Holmes and the rhythm are excellent supporting her (while the and then her father's robust solo.

There are two McCoy Tyner compositions included here including a fresh take of "Fly With the Wind," which might seem an unusual choice, but the tubas collectively play a role similar to strings on Tyner's originally and Johnson continues to impress with his fluidity and expressiveness. On the other Tyner composition, the bouncy "High Priest," Johnson is heard playing some driving baritone sax with Bargeron and McIntyre standing out among the tuba ensemble. Bassist Slocum solos strongly here. In between these two numbers is a lovely take on the Carole King classic "A Natural Woman," with Velvet Brown playing the melody and improvisation while Johnson handles the ensemble lead.Johnson's "Little Black Lucille," has Johnson opening unaccompanied on the penny-whistle whose high register is far removed from the other selections. His playful playing is joined by Holmes and then ensemble who provide a frame for his solo which is followed by Holme's stately, gospel-tinged piano.

Bob Neloms composition "Evolution" on which Johnson's arrangement and the composition contribute as much as the solos from him, McIntyre, Bargeron and Stewart along with the personality they each provide with their playing, and this feeling is also heard on the closing number, a rendition of Wilton Felder's "Way Back Home," which provides its own take on this soul jazz classic, originally performed by The Crusaders. Far from being a novelty jazz ensemble because of its instrumentation, Gravity plays music that both moves one with its melodicism as much as the unique instrumental harmonies fashioned by its leader. It has been nearly two decades since I saw them, and another decade since I saw them with Taj Mahal's Tuba Band but like a previous recording by them I have, the music here surprises and consistently delights the listener.

I received my review copy from a publicist. This review appeared in the March-April 2017 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 371). Here Howard Johnson and Gravity perform "Fly With The Wind."


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