Graded on a Curve:
Josh Johnson,
Freedom Exercise

Freedom Exercise is the debut album from alto saxophonist and composer Josh Johnson. With that title and the current Los Angeles resident’s choice of instrument, folks might be expecting an excursion into avant-garde jazz, but that’s not what’s up. Learning that Johnson’s heading a band comprised of guitar, electric bass and drums could lead others to anticipate a neo-fusion scenario, but that’s not the scoop either, though elements of that genre are found in Johnson’s style. Instead, the album’s contents are far more accessible and with intertwining and very welcome contemporary progressions. It’s out digitally October 9, with LP pre-orders shipping in December, through Northern Spy.

The alto saxophone was the instrument in the hands of arguably the greatest innovator in the history of jazz. However, speaking as someone who generally prefers the style when it’s spitting out sparks of creative friction far more than the pursuit of placid atmospheres or the cultivation of prolonged and unimaginative grooves, the alto sax has played no small role in many questionable moments.

To be fair, in jazz terms, the alto is certainly not as potentially frustrating an instrument as the vibraphone, the flute, the organ, the guitar, and even its reed relative, the soprano sax. In fact, due to Parker’s supreme mastery of the horn, people rarely bring up that it’s aptitude for unperturbed buoyancy is especially well-suited for mellow situations.

I mention all this because Josh Johnson is not a particularly hard blower, though he avoids sinking into the mire described above through smart playing, compositional verve, and savvy execution from a four-piece band featuring drums and percussion by Aaron Steele, electric bass by Anna Butterss, and guitar by Gregory Uhlmann. If not modeled on fusion, they are more than slightly reminiscent of Chicago post-rock.

This is unsurprising, as Johnson is a native of the Windy City area, though he’s spent the last eight years or so in Los Angeles, having moved there to learn from jazz masters Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. Since then, he’s recorded with fellow Chicagoan (and L.A. resident) Jeff Parker, Makaya McCraven and others, while landing a plum gig as musical director for singer Leon Bridges.

Like Parker (notably, a member of Tortoise) and McCraven (and likewise, Hancock and Shorter), Johnson is disinterested in filling any sort of standard role as a jazz saxophonist. Freedom Exercise’s opener “Nerf Day” makes this abundantly clear through Uhlmann’s wiggly-wobbly guitar line and the funk-tinged finesse of the rhythm section, though Johnson does adhere to a rich melodic course throughout, with a lively solo and a nifty tempo shifts along the way.

Add brevity to the cut’s strengths, a factor which applies to the whole record, as only two tracks break the five-minute mark. “856” barely exceeds two, but quickly brings Reich and Glass to mind through layered cyclical patterns. What’s not here is alto, at least not in the trad sense. I provide that qualifier, as there could be (likely is) some processing going on; in addition to his sax, Johnson is credited with mellotron, Prophet 6, percussion, synth, MS-20, Wurlitzer, flute, bass clarinet, synth bass, sampler, and for this cut and perhaps elsewhere, the 856 for Zellersasn (a looping device, in short).

“Western Avenue” follows a melodic sensibility similar to “Nerf Day,” but with funkier bass and drums, mingling Afrobeat and The Meters with a modern twist essentially, plus a little more edge in Johnson’s tone and phrasing. Another positive is how the synth lines occasionally echo the horn melody. Next, “Bowed” begins in a more abstract zone, and is tangibly jazzy through Steele’s drumming, though a distinct and forceful approach to the cyclical quickly emerges and with a profusion of sax.

“Eclipsing” adds bass clarinet to the palette through multitracking, and along with some hard-edged guitar, a lovely tom drum motif, and sturdy bass, the results are uniformly strong. Butterss shines for the entirety of “New July,” serving up the tense pulse that helps shape the cut into neo-’70s action flick soundtrack motions of a sort.

What’s nice is the lack of any overzealous maneuvers in a retro direction. From there, “False Choice” manages to blend aspects of fusion, electro-funk, and post-rock (at times leaning nearer to Stereolab than Tortoise to my ear), while “Punk” is a precise groover that could’ve been stretched out for a whole lot longer.

It’s really “Simple Song,” which, at a smidge over six minutes, also happens to be the longest song on Freedom Exercise, that inspired the above rumination on the alto saxophone. Johnson’s melodic line is so amiable here that it’s utterly primed for pop crossover, or more accurately, would’ve been in the late ’70s-early ’80s. But that fits quite well with the intentions of a musician who has stated his desire to thrive beyond the insularity of the jazz club scene.

Because it’s more than just a catchy earworm, “Simple Song” ultimately works; the ensemble continues to embody far more than standard accompaniment as Johnson’s soloing is warm and unpredictable. “Return Recoil” delivers one last short plunge into techno laced post-rock (I thought of Spaceheads) for the close. Altogether, Freedom Exercise is a very promising debut; part of me hopes he’ll cut loose a little more in the future, but then, doing so could sacrifice the qualities that make this LP so appealing. Just do your thing, Josh.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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