Russ Johnson: Working on the Tightrope
RJ: I specifically wrote it that way. There's a few places where I write harmony parts, and in other bands I write a lot more contrapuntal parts for the horns. But with John, our sounds blend together so well that it almost creates this other instrument. Our musical aesthetic is so similar in ways that it justI don't want to say it forced me to write that way, but I wanted to get that thing where, when we play those melodies, when we play the heads, the blend is so good and the intonation is so strong that it sounds like this other instrument.
AAJ: A third voice.
RJ: Yeah, it sounds like a third voice. I play in a lot if different projects. I play with this woman Jenny Scheinman as well, a really great violinist. And one of the reasons I love playing with her in her band is that the trumpet/violin combination is not [laughing] standard front line. But she and I have a thing as wellit all comes down to listening and blending. And she and I can also create this unique kind of sound. And it's the same thing with her band and the way she writes; most of the time when she writes for the two of us, it's unison. And for my band, this was a project-specific idea.
AAJ: That was your Save Big compositional strategy.
RJ: Yeah. And for the Other Quartetthe music I've written for thatit's almost completely contrapuntal. It's different. Completely independent lines. But with this one, I was going for that thing that I get with John.
AAJ: Speaking of "Figuratively Speaking, there is, to me, a quality to your and John's solos there that's striking. They're so separate from each other; each one feels like a very different look at the same placelike two photos of the same thing taken from very different angles and positions.
RJ: I think you're on to something there. That's one of those stop-start tunes as well that has different pulses throughout it, and that's what I was going for. Everybody talks about Ornette, and I'm a huge fan; I can't deny my influences. Pretty much all of Ornette's music, the stuff with Don Cherry especiallyit's incredible. And when I wrote the tune, I did want two completely unrelated tempos. John is free to choose the tempo on his solo. It usually tends to be up, because we've established a little bit of history with that. My tempo is pretty much set, becausewithout being too technical, I'm coming out of a rhythmic figure that sets up the time for mine. But then when I finish, John is free to choose where he goesas long as it's not the same tempo I just played in! But you'd never have to tell him that. But yeah, it's supposed to be two different takes on the same idea. I like the way you put that. That's one of the only tunes on the record that straightout swings and I didn't want to just have the formulaic swing tune where you play the head, and just, you know, I solo, you solo, head outthat kind of thing. Actually, I wanted that to be the title of this record: Figuratively Speaking. That tune, that title speaks for the entire record for me; when I composed the music, it was all about figures and motifsalong with the tunes. It's not a typical record in that there are no 32-bar formsI've never bothered to count measures [laughing].
AAJ: You're not working through changes.
RJ: Yeah, exactly. Even on "Saguache, that tune sounds so simple. But metrically, it's actually pretty complex. It sounds simple because of the way it's performed; the vibe is so laid-back that you don't realize that one measure's in eight, the next one's in six, the next one's in seven.
AAJ: Actually, all this music is tricky. It's complicated. It has different parts. It is sparse but precise music.
RJ: When it's played well. I usually only do gigs with those guys or my other favorite players in New York. I tried to play it in some other contexts, and it hasn't worked. You have to have people that have the ability to play mixed-meter stuff effortlessly. And that came to me later in life; I was a bebopper until my mid-twenties. I was into Miles as a kid, then a whole Freddie [Hubbard] thing, then a Kenny Dorham phaseso I lived that music, but I don't [laughing] live in 1955. Anyway, these guys are all very comfortable playing any kind of mixed-meter thing or completely free. That's one of the things I'm proud of about the record; I think it's a pretty good combination of written music that can be quite complicatedand an openness that you can get when playing completely improvised music.