Darren Johnston – The Edge of the Forest (CF 133)
Darren Johnston is a Bay-area trumpeter who has studied at Mills College and has worked and recorded with some distinguished company, including Adam Lane and OrchestRova. He has previously recorded a single CD as leader, Reasons for Moving (NotTwo) with a quintet that included Fred Frith and Larry Ochs. While that recording placed an emphasis on improvisation, there’s a greater concentration on Johnston’s compositions here, executed here by his regular quintet – Ben Goldberg, clarinet; Sheldon Brown, bass clarinet and tenor; Devin Hoff, bass; and Smith Dobson V, drums.
As both composer and trumpeter Johnston seems to come from some of the best places, Don Cherry and Booker Little, though the latter influence may be transmuted through Kenny Wheeler and Dave Douglas. Perhaps because of the quality of those forebears, Johnston already has his own sound and sense of form. The sound is tart, at times to the point of acidic, and it contributes to the intensity and focus of his lines, which are consistently probing, always reaching towards form. He can use mutes to touch on the timbres of early jazz as well as using extended techniques to stretch momentarily towards multiphonics. There’s a certain Klezmer-like quality to his compositions, often rooted in minor keys and emphasized by the sound of Goldberg’s dry clarinet. Added to that there’s a certain spikiness and jerkiness, a mix of the pensive and kinetic that can suggest both post-bop and the music of Hanns Eisler. There are frequent collisions in Johnston’s conflicting rhythms and figures, but that too is relieved by moments of lightly consonant swing.
Given the amount of thought that Johnston is clearly putting into his work, it’s a relief that it rarely sounds studied. The compositions act as triggers for consistently taut improvisation, from the rhythmic dance between horn and rhythm to improvised solo against composed ensembles to some stunning collective improvisations that—aided by Goldberg’s slithering clarinet–are joyous enough to suggest a free jazz take on New Orleans polyphony. Few musicians could get as much out of a small ensemble: the opening “Be the Frog” is filled with timbral contrasts, including the unison figures that rise to meet Johnston’s trumpet solo; “Foggy,” with the addition of Rob Reich’s accordion, effectively alternates lead voices against ensemble punctuations in a way that’s genuinely orchestral. Micro-groupings also figure in Johnson’s strategies, from an unaccompanied segment of clarinet and tenor to a pensive interlude of bass clarinet and string bass. Johnston even takes the unusual step of having the final “Sippin’ with Lou” end with the ensemble fading into silence until Brown’s wistful tenor is left starkly alone. It’s as beautiful as it is unlikely.