Tag Archives: Darren Johnston

JazzGram review by Alain Drouot

Cylinder is a quartet of San Francisco Bay Area expatriates, which includes, besides Shelton, a Canadian trumpeter, Darren Johnson, a bass player from Staten Island, Lisa Mezzacappa, and a drummer from Norway, Kjell Nordeson, who was a member of School Days, a defunct group that included Chicagoans Ken Vandermark and Jeb Bishop. Cylinder is a truly collective effort with every band member contributing compositions. As a result, their debut recording provides a wide variety of circumstances and forms. Johnston’s “The Ear That Was Sold to a Fish” or Mezzacappa’s “The Deep Disciplines” have also an Ornette Coleman feel. The alto sax/trumpet front line is definitely one factor, but the main idea is to have every musician play melodically. On the other hand, Nordeson’s personal sound cannot be mistaken for neither Billy Higgins’ nor Ed Blackwell’s. Whether the quartet delves into a dirge, ruminations, or collages, it strikes a nice balance between unisons and counterpoints, between abstraction and grooves, the whole experience being complemented by a broad sonic palette–in addition to the alto sax, Shelton plays the Bb and bass clarinets. And when jazz is foremost known for using melodies as a springboard for improvisation, these four musicians can also start from an impromptu situation to slowly and cleverly build a structure, which testifies to the level of communication they operate at.

Ni Kantu review by Clifford Allen

ARRIVE – There Was (CF 217)
CYLINDER – Cylinder (CF 219)
Composer-reedman Aram Shelton is a very unassuming character, which is partly why his trajectory is so interesting to watch. Based in Oakland, California for the past several years while studying at Mills College, he’s still found time to maintain his Chicago roots, playing with cooperative ensembles like Fast Citizens and Rolldown as well as various West Coast aggregations. As an improviser, he’s probably one of the most consistently exciting altoists on the contemporary scene, having studied intently the music of historic messengers like Jackie McLean, Gary Bartz, Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton and wrapping it all into his own conception. Two recent discs on the Clean Feed label put an excellent spotlight on some of Shelton’s activities – namely, the quartets Arrive (which began in Chicago) and the decidedly Bay Area band Cylinder.

Arrive features fellow Rolldown members Jason Adasiewicz (vibes) and Jason Roebke (bass) along with drummer Tim Daisy, and There Was is their second disc to date. The opening title piece gradually shifts from spare tonal exploration to sharp alto pirouettes atop a taut, active thrum, Roebke’s fistfuls making this groove edgily pliant and brightly accented. The vibist’s solo shows just how much he’s progressed over the last few years, bright pools and fragmentary sub-tunes making themselves clear in one of the most strikingly (no pun intended) individual statements on the instrument in recent memory. “Frosted” exhibits a shredded view of a nocturnal half-ballad as Shelton takes a caressing tone and eviscerates it with gutsy near squall, at other times making coagulated blues. Adasciewicz matches delicacy with crisp, snaking movement in a mirror to the saxophonist’s devilish turns before Daisy inflects the tune with calypso-like rhythms. From the lilting melody of “Lost,” it’s a quick transition into Roebke’s woody muscle, using hands, bow and forearms to craft tensile opposition. Reprising the theme, its resonance is catchy and Shelton’s blistering statements rekindle the fiery gobs of AACM sound as much as they do an aggressively-tinged hardbop push. He’s clearly a player who knows two divergent traditions well, but his own work as an instrumentalist-composer is to find ways to bring them together.

Cylinder is the cooperative quartet of Shelton, trumpeter Darren Johnston, bassist Lisa Mezzacappa and drummer Kjell Nordeson (who splits his time between California and Stockholm). The trumpeter composed the opening “The Ear That Was Sold to a Fish,” which recalls the John Carter-Bobby Bradford Quartet in its uneasy funereal unison before splaying out into curling alto, as meaty pizzicato bass and Nordeson’s light rattle build a rhythm environment. “The Deep Disciplines” pits short, darting segments against sawing insistence, alto and trumpet in loose commentary atop a swaying hull and obsessive patter. A drummer who builds his language from small rimshots, highly-tuned taps and deadened thuds, Nordeson is one of the most engaging parts of this quartet, especially as he counters Mezzacappa’s robust and steadfast bass playing. The pair tugs at one another on the brief “Shells,” written by the drummer as a chunky rhythmic exploration that soon steps out of bounds while horns pile on with cutting interplay. Mezzacappa’s closing “Earthworm” is a spacious roil with bass clarinet and drums played off of rude harmonic scrawl in varying degrees of density. Cylinder presents a solid program of piano-less quartet music and, while not all of it is entirely distinctive, the contrasts between the group’s four personalities should make for excellent future results. Both discs are a fine place to introduce oneself to Aram Shelton’s music.

The New York City Jazz Record review Wilbur MacKenzie

Darren Johnston/Aram Shelton/Lisa Mezzacappa/Kjell Nordeson – Cylinder (CF 219)
Cylinder is a collective quartet based in San Francisco, with an ensemble dynamic that echoes Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet without foregoing each individual’s unique voice as an instrumentalist and composer. The four musicians each come from disparate locations in the US and Sweden and each brings to the ensemble an eclectic background of musical vocabularies. The challenge with a record by four leaders who all compose for the band is to create a sound that both represents the distinct characters of the composer/performers, but also puts forth a general consensus of creative direction. Saxophonist/clarinetist Aram Shelton’s history with Chicago inevitably leads a listener to draw comparisons between the Associationfor the Advancement of Creative Musicians and Shelton’s colorful and spacious composition style, with “Four Thoughts” and “Skipped Rocks” both offering an enchanting blend of abstraction, freedom and lyricism. Drummer Kjell Nordeson sounds amazing on the latter and the Swede’s own compositions are beautiful, “Shells” brimming with energy and drive and “Sung By Dogs” mixing melodic intrigue with some great extended techniques from trumpeter Darren Johnston. Johnston’s compositions probably most directly call to mind Ornette Coleman’s unlikely melodic structures, with the themes of “The Ear That Was Sold To a Fish” and “Sink Town” floating over a propulsive rhythm. Bassist Lisa Mezzacappa’s prodigious technique lends the ensemble firm footing and a flexible poise that enables fluidity of motion. Both her arco and pizzicato playing are buoyant, assured and consistently engaging. Her “The Deep Disciplines” sets up a variety of ensemble shapes in the composed sections, with sharp unisons, wobbling trills and driving rhythms all careening up against each other. The variety of compositional structures on display across this disc are impressive and the energy with which the musicians bring these works to life is ear-grabbing. Having each found their way to the Bay Area from disparate locales, they have created a cohesive band with a sense of team work and a love of innovation and tradition, both shared and personal. The band functions so well as a unit because it is made up of individuals enjoying each other’s ideas and discoveries.

Monsieur Délire by François Couture

CYLINDER / Cylinder (CF 219)
Plus créatif, plus pompé, plus intéressant est cet autre quatuor avec Aram Shelton, quatuor qu’il ne dirige pas cette fois. Cylinder est un projet collectif entre Shelton, le trompettiste Darren Johnston, la bassiste Lisa Mezzacappa et le batteur Kjell Nordeson. Les quatre membres composent pour le groupe. Superbes échanges entre trompette et saxo, une section rythmique qui a du cran, une écriture sautillante et qui sait frapper là où ça fait mal (ou du bien, c’est selon). J’aime.

More creative, pumped up and interesting than Arrive is this other quartet featuring Aram Shelton, although he is not the leader this time. Cylinder is a collective project between Shelton, trumpeter Darren Johnston, bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, and drummer Kjell Nordeson. All four compose for the group. Gorgeous exchanges between trumpet and sax, a gutsy rhythm section, and spirited writing that hits where it hurts (and it feels good). I like.

Free Jazz review bu Stef Gissels

Darren Johnston – Cylinder (CF 219)
Ornette Coleman’s musical revolution of the late 50s and early 60s is still alive, and this band is without a doubt its grandchild, with Darren Johnston on trumpet, Aram Shelton on sax and clarinet, Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Kjell Nordeson on drums. And the reference to Coleman is not only because of the line-up, but primarily because of the music.

The core theme and the improvisations get priority over specific harmonies or fixed rhythms as the foundation of each composition. But they add the modernism, the technical skills and freedom of spirit that you can expect of today’s jazz.

This a true band effort too, with all band members writing two compositions each and Shelton three, but you wouldn’t know when listening, because the overall musical coherence is very strong.

I have listened to this album more than a few dozen times over the past few weeks, and I  keep reaching back to it, not only because I love the sound and the playing, but also because it has this kind of ungraspable quality : it remains totally unpredictable, leading to increasing moments of enjoyment with each listen. Sometimes angular, sometimes sweet, but deconstruction seems to be its main characteristic.

A theme is set, then it is gradually taken apart, stripped of its form while laying bare its true essence, in a trumpet solo without accompaniment, a bass, some violent drumming, a soaring sax, demonstrating the depth of the piece, adding emotions, different shades, sonic explorations and some rhythmics puzzles … with a great sense of adventure but without losing track of the main theme, always coming back to it flawlessly.

The overall result is exceptionally good, not only because of the individual playing but because of the overal feeling of a band that creates something unique. Like the Ornette Coleman quartet, this is freedom in a fixed format, not the long expansive improvisations of the later Coltrane or Ayler, but expressive power without restraints within the confines of concept and structure and time. It reads like a paradox, and well, maybe it is, the characteristic of all great music.

And like Ornette Coleman, the themes themselves are often of a compelling and sweeping beauty.

Not to be missed!

Maurice Hogue’s “Best of 2009” List for CKUW 95.9 FM Winnipeg

Favourite Releases of 2009- One Man’s Jazz

John Hebert – Byzantine Monkey (Firehouse 12)
Tony Malaby – Paloma Recio (New World)
The Fully Celebrated – Drunk On The Blood Of The Holy Ones (AUM Fidelity)
Darius Jones Trio – Man’ish Boy (AUM Fidelity)
Steve Lehman Octet – Travail, Transformation and Flow (Pi)
Darren Johnston – The Edge of the Forest (Clean Feed)
Vijay Iyer Trio – Historicity (Act)
Wadada Leo Smith – Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform)
Henry Threadgill Zooid – This Brings Us To, Vol. 1 (Pi)
Joel Harrison – Urban Myths (Highnote)

Alain Drouot: Top 10 and more

Top 10 of 2009
1. Michel Edelin – Kuntu – Rogue Art
2. Vijay Iyer – Historicity – ACT
3. Miroslav Vitous – Remembering Weather Report – ECM
4. Louis Moholo-Moholo/Duets with Marilyn Crispell – Sibanye (We Are One) – Intakt
5. Sophie Agnel – Capsizing Moments – Emanem
6. Darren Johnston – The Edge of the Forest (Clean Feed)
7. David Binney – Third Occasion – Mythology
8. Brian Groder – Groder & Greene – Latham Records
9. Matt Wilson Quartet – That’s Gonna Leave a Mark – Palmetto
10. Rob Mazurek – Sound Is – Delmark
Runners up
11. Alex Cline – Continuation – Cryptogramophone)
12. The Fully Celebrated – Drunk on the Blood of the Holy Ones – AUM Fidelity
13. Satoko Fujii & Myra Melford – Under the Water – Libra
14. Ben Goldberg/Charlie Hunter/Scott Amendola/Ron Miles – Go Home – BAG
15. Okkyung Lee/Peter Evans/Steve Beresford – Check for Monsters – Emanem
16. Agustí Fernández – Un Llamp Que No S’Acaba Mai – Psi
17. Steve Adams – Surface Tension – Clean Feed
18. Denman Maroney – Udentity – Clean Feed
19. Gypsy Shaeffer – New Album – PeaceTime
20. Josh Berman – Old Idea – Delmark

Village Voice’s Jazz Consumer Guide by Tom Hull

Darren Johnston – The Edge of the Forestv (CF 133)
Ben Goldberg’s clarinet takes flight immediately, with Sheldon Brown adding extra oomph on tenor sax and bass clarinet while the leader pokes in bits of trumpet and lays in wait for his breaks. This is postbop that looks forward, with such a broad range of moves and details that you have to credit the composer. These days, virtually all jazz musicians claim that title, but few convince you it matters.

All About Jazz review by Clifford Allen

Four on Clean Feed: Darren Johnston, Luis Lopes, Daniel Levin, Avram Fefer
CF 133
Darren Johnston – The Edge of the Forest (CF 133)

CF 146Luis Lopes/Adam Lane/Igal Foni – What Is When (CF 146)


CF 147

Daniel Levin Quartet – Live at Roulette (CF 147)

CF 145

 Avram Fefer – Ritual (CF 145)

Since its 2001 beginning in Lisbon, Portugal, Clean Feed Records has amassed a mind-numbingly large catalogue, with nearly 150 releases to their credit. Though initially the label skewed towards Portuguese locals in both avant garde and mainstream fields, their modus operandi now covers the globe with artists from Scandinavia, Japan, the United States, Germany and Canada. When this writer interviewed label proprietor Pedro Costa in 2003, his hopes were to release music by big names like Cecil Taylor, William Parker and Peter Brotzmann. Clearly, it’s been a far more fruitful venture to make Clean Feed into a home for the unsigned and under-represented. Thus, followers of the label have the opportunity to hear a diverse array of improvisers; players like West Coast trumpeter Darren Johnston, Lisbon-based guitarist Luis Lopes and New York regulars, cellist Daniel Levin and reedman Avram Fefer are just a scratch to the surface.

Johnston, a Canadian now based in the Bay Area, isn’t probably as close to a vanguard household name as he could be. He has worked with Fred Frith and the Rova organization as well as directing the United Brassworkers Front, but The Edge of the Forest is only the second disc to feature his name across the sleeve. He’s ably supported here by clarinetist Ben Goldberg, tenorman Sheldon Brown, bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Smith Dobson on seven originals, vamp-heavy but with tight, woody arrangements. Johnston’s tone is particularly incisive—bright and detailed, but with a cutting projection equal parts Woody Shaw and Ted Daniel. “Foggy” adds accordionist (and regular collaborator) Rob Reich to the proceedings, granting a lush and sometimes otherworldly drone to biting rhythmic bounce and keening woodwinds. One thing that holds true throughout is that Johnston’s writing gives an illusion of size and breadth far beyond the five or six players present.

Portuguese guitarist Luis Lopes is joined by Israeli drummer Igal Foni and East Coast bassist Adam Lane on What Is When, another notch in the proliferating subgenre of guitar-based improvised power trios of late, along the lines of Scorch Trio or Adam Caine’s group. The difference here being that Lopes is about as far as one can get from a pyrotechnical guitarist, hanging back with muted, gritty lines and fields of delicate introspection fleshed out by Lane’s throaty pizzicato and a constant burble of activity from Foni’s kit. Linear repetition, bluesy fragments and worrying isolation pepper Lopes’ improvisation on “Spontaneous Combustion,” though despite a sparse aesthetic worldview, by no means is this a ‘quiet’ trio. “The Siege” offers one of Lopes’ flitting and quizzical singsong melodies, of the sort so brilliantly fleshed out with saxophonist Rodrigo Amado in the Humanization 4tet. Split off into areas of grungy and electronically-altered arco and punchy rhythms, the tune’s melodic rejoinder is both unifying and perversely off-kilter.

Cellist Daniel Levin has been a member of the New York improvising community for the better part of a decade; following discs for hatOLOGY and Riti, Live at Roulette is his second disc for Clean Feed and his first for the label with his working quartet. With him are vibraphonist Matt Moran, trumpeter Nate Wooley and bassist Peter Bitenc (replacing Joe Morris) for ten collective improvisations, which continually break the unit down into micro-areas of solo and duo playing. Subtracting a drummer from the proceedings begs a sort of ‘chamber’ aesthetic and that’s partially true here, though the quartet often puts forth a tremendous amount of forward motion, introduced through Moran’s vibes and electronic resonance on “Matt,” subtonal cello growling and ponticello scrapes leading into brassy scrawl, teetering on the edge of ‘noise’ but for an extraordinary amount of clarity. “Delicate” begins with paper-thin breath and glassy sustain, Levin’s cello part echoing the quieter moments of Kodaly’s “Suite for Unaccompanied Violoncello”; indeed, the most commanding moments of the set might come from improvised Janos Starker-isms.

Reedman Avram Fefer is probably the longest-term fixture in creative music of any of the players represented by these four discs. Ritual is his first for Clean Feed, however, and features him in a power-trio format with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Chad Taylor on nine original tunes (including dedications to saxophonist Archie Shepp and the late conceptual artist Blinky Palermo). This writer’s first exposure to Fefer was hearing him put through his paces by the kaleidoscopic runs of pianist Bobby Few. Ritual is an opportunity to hear the leader’s brusque, burnished improvisations put a rhythm section through some of his own. Certainly Revis and Taylor are up to the task—the drummer’s dry shuffle is a perfect counterpoint to Fefer’s cottonmouthed cry on the opening “Testament” while Revis is rock-solid meat, unmovable propulsion no matter how ragged and loose things get. That’s especially true on tunes like “Shepp in Wolves’ Clothing,” where Fefer mines two-horn territory, more in the vein of Peter van der Locht than George Braith and plugging Monk, the New York Contemporary 5 and his own wit throughout.

Chicago Reader listing by Bill Meyer

DARREN JOHNSTON On Wednesday, Bay Area trumpeter Darren Johnston will lead a band of locals through tunes from his swell new album, The Edge of the Forest (Clean Feed). Tonight he’ll demonstrate his versatility in a freely improvised set with bassist Jason Roebke and Nate McBride. They’ll play first, followed by Mind vs. Target, aka guitarist Shane Perlowin, bassist Joe Burkett, and drummer Michael Libramento. 10 PM, Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont, 773-935-2118, donation requested. —Bill Meyer

wednesday12 DARREN JOHNSTON Darren Johnston is a consummately versatile trumpeter who sounds just as comfortable wrapping grainy ribbons of sound around a funk groove as he does steering perfectly pitched bop phrases through a landscape of swing or Latin beats. He’s recorded New Orleans-style parade music and Angolan protest songs with the United Brassworkers Front and free improvisations with Fred Frith and Larry Ochs, but it’s his original compositions, which both challenge and reward his sidemen with their elaborate rhythmic and harmonic settings, that make his new album, The Edge of the Forest (Clean Feed), so great. On “Broken,” Johnston uses the aforementioned combination of coarse blowing and heavy grooves to set up a series of thrilling contrapuntal exchanges with clarinetist Ben Goldberg and tenor saxophonist Sheldon Brown, then resolves with a fearsomely intricate but immaculately executed unison coda. Tonight he’ll lead four local players—trombonist Jeb Bishop, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Nate McBride, and drummer Frank Rosaly—through two sets that will include material from The Edge of the Forest. McBride will DJ before and after. See also