Calling J.J. Johnson "Mr. Jazz Trombone" is not applying a quaint honorific - no trombonist in jazz history has so richly laid claim to magisterial authority on the instrument.
Until Johnson began performing in the '40s, the trombone was chiefly a limited tool in big band brass arsenals, or used in Dixieland ensembles, in both cases often saddled with a limited tonal vocabulary mimicking vocal effects.
Johnson was the first jazz trombonist to dazzlingly prove the slide trombone could be as versatile as a saxophonist, and could be a compelling lead instrument in various ensembles. And three new Johnson recordings, two reissues and one new, offer delights galore for listeners intrigued by the full expressive range of the ungainly looking horn, offering three very different dimensions of the hornman's genius.
The motherlode of this season's Johnson bonanza is a seven CD box, The Complete J.J. Johnson Small Group Sessions, a limited edition set available only through mail order from Mosaic Records (35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT, 06902; Tel: (203) 327-7111). These are recordings originally issued by Columbia Records (which has been tardy in releasing most of these albums on their own label) that showcase Johnson as a highly lyrical soloist with an extraordinary feeling for ballads.
Indeed, two of the most moving numbers in this box are songs by Billie Holiday (with whom Johnson recorded in her last session), "God Bless the Child" and "My Old Flame." Johnson's solos never go for easy sentimentality; he carefully balances tension and ease in shaping solos that have a timeless, floating, balanced quality, emotionally well-focused and intellectually crisp. He never overplays, always coordinating his carefully-honed solos to mesh with his tightly disciplined small bands. And while most of these seven discs contain well-known chestnuts like "Star Dust" and "It Might As Well Be Spring," Johnson's sense of humor surfaces with unlikely numbers like "Tumbling Tumbleweeds."
While the Mosaic set offers a carefully refined side of Johnson's talent, the two-disc Yokohama Concert, a reissue from a 1977 Japanese concert on the Fantasy label, is Johnson at his most fiercely boisterous, particularly in stingingly hot duets with trumpeter Nat Adderley. Part of the fun of this date is hearing Johnson's son Kevin on drums interacting busily with his famous Dad. Nine long tunes, none sounding as carefully rehearsed and arranged as the Columbia dates from the '50s, enable Johnson and his quintet to stretch out and try new sounds.
Those curious as to what the trombonist is up to now should immediately hear his J.J. Johnson - The Brass Orchestra on Verve. Six young trombonists, all influenced by Johnson, join him, along with eight trumpeters, four French horns, pairs of tubas and saxophones, piano, harp, bass, drums.
The result? A completely unexpected amalgam of jazz and modern classical styles marked by rousing solos by generations of brassmen. The 14 tunes, composed mainly by Johnson, offer supreme examples of a lovely paradox: These are carefully written band arrangements, with generous solo spots, offering impressions of total improvisation.
While Johnson has retired from the concert circuit, he continues to actively record and inspires hornmen hardly half his age. He is also learning to compose with the computer, an instrument unheard of at his career's start.