By Tim Niland
Bassist and composer Max Johnson has had a wide ranging musical career, performing with luminaries from the jazz, rock and bluegrass world in addition to developing an excellent series of albums as a leader in the progressive jazz vein. This album has a very interesting setting, featuring Susan Alcorn on pedal steel guitar, Kris Davis on piano and Mike Pride on drums. Pulling from a disparate variety of sounds, this group moves through four diverse compositions, beginning with “Ten Hands,” which builds in a suite like configuration, continually shifting the focus of the music and its inherent improvisation as it develops and expands motifs as well as solo sections and duo pairings within the overall structure of the piece. Whether it is percussive piano, droning steel guitar and bowed bass or a rattling drum feature, the music remains vibrant and colorful. “Greenwood” uses a large amount of space and takes its time in development, bringing about a spontaneous creative environment with spare piano framed by light guitar, bass and drums. There is a sense of freedom and drive that is further advanced by the performance by increasing volume and adding complex rhythm, with touches of piano notes and chords meeting ropes of steel guitar and shimmering cymbals before fading back to a quiet conclusion. Piano and percussion percolate and flutter against the steel guitar on “Great Big Fat Person” eventually opening the music to a wide range of ideas. Subtle but complex themes are built and extrapolated upon, and interesting details brought into the foreground. Drops of golden sounding guitar accents the frenetic pace of the piano and drums leading to a powerful collective improvisation. “Once Upon a Time in the West” is the only non-original, having been composed by Ennio Morricone for the classic western film of the same name. Here the song is re-arranged by Johnson, but it retains the dynamic and cinematic outlook, over an impressive twenty-one minute length. Incorporating mournful bass bowing which leads to an excellent free sounding improvisation where all the instruments are deep in conversation. This track also resolves itself over several sections, such as ones for spare piano or bass and others for the full band, and builds to a large and wide ranging soundscape. The group is able to evoke the huge landscapes and wide vistas of the American southwest over the course of the album, drawing on the rich musical, cinematic and artistic history of the area to develop a compelling statement.