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Point of Departure review by Stuart Broomer

cf-133Darren 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.  
http://www.pointofdeparture.org/PoD21/PoD21MoreMoments2.html

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All About Jazz review by Troy Collins

cf-133Darren Johnston – The Edge of the Forest (CF 133)
Canadian-born Darren Johnston was recently chosen by Down Beat Magazine as one of 25 Trumpeters of the Future. Currently working in the Bay Area’s fertile new music scene, Johnston is a prime example of the new generation’s eclectic interpretation of the jazz tradition. After acquiring his Master’s in composition from Mills College in Oakland, California, Johnston went on to hone his craft with such legends as Fred Frith, Myra Melford and Rova. Besides recordings of his collaborative work, The Edge of the Forest is his first session as a leader.

A number of these pieces originated as dance commissions, revealing a rich balance between rhythmic ingenuity and intricate, yet tuneful melodic concepts. Assisting in the interpretation of these sublime works are veteran clarinetist Ben Goldberg, saxophonist Sheldon Brown, bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Smith Dobson V. A magnanimous leader who provides ample solo time to his sidemen, Johnston himself demonstrates an architecturally sound approach; on “Broken,” he unfurls a series of cascading lines that radiate audacious tonalities without abandoning melodic structure.

While Johnston’s trumpet playing is warmly expressive and thematically concise, it is his elaborate writing and creative arranging that stands out. Layering contrapuntal melody lines into cantilevered rhythms and shifting time signatures, Johnston’s tunes eschew conventional structures in favor of a more narrative approach. On “Be the Frog,” Johnston’s buttery trumpet solo dominates the first half of the tune until the ensemble temporarily subsides, revealing a rousing, unaccompanied duet between Brown’s muscular tenor and Goldberg’s woody clarinet, before regrouping for the coda.

Tunes like “Be the Frog,” “Foggy” and “Broken” expose their dance-oriented beginnings with interlocking counter-harmonies and infectious lock-step vamps, while the ebullient post-bop of “Apples” acts a vehicle for Brown’s tortuous tenor. Revealing a meditative side, Johnston’s honeyed trumpet refrains and Goldberg’s sinuous clarinet musings exude billowy lyricism on the introspective title track. “Sippin’ With Lou” bridges the gap, segueing from coiled angles, capricious tempo changes and frenzied collective improvisation into an atmospheric and dreamy finale.

Despite the sophistication of his writing, Johnston is a keen tunesmith whose melodic sensibility never falters, drawing equally from nostalgic brass charts, knotty post-bop lines, simmering funk ostinatos and exotic harmonies. The Edge of the Forest is a brilliant example of where jazz is headed—adventurous and unpredictable, yet always accessible. Darren Johnston is definitely one of the top trumpeters of the future.
http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=31675

Free Jazz review by Stef

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Darren Johnston – The Edge Of The Forest (CF 133)
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Ever since I heard “Third Impulse” and “Reasons For Moving”, I was hooked on Darren Johnston’s trumpet playing, and when I noticed that Clean Feed would be issuing an album by him, expectations ran high for what I thought would be an avant-garde jazz album. Yet again, I apparently assume too much. This is modern jazz at its best : rhythmic, with strong compositions, clear themes and structure, great arrangements, and above all, a list of top-notch musicians, with Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Sheldon Brown on tenor sax and bass clarinet, Devin Hoff on double bass, and Smith Dobson V on drums. Rob Reich joins on accordion on the second track, and he fits perfectly to set the tone of the piece. The music has a high degree of complexity, in that various orchestrated things can happen at the same time, at different speeds, with several melodies being interwoven, often with a solo or two on top, and this then changes the whole time, within the same piece. Another great thing about the album is that despite the complexity and the musicians’ skills, this music swings, it is joyful and exuberant. It swings (“Cabin 5”), it funks (“Broken”), it bops (“Apples”), and they improvise through history from old to new and back, there are references from Ellingtonian music as much as to Dave Douglas, but in a way, I don’t think Johnston needs those comparisons. He is a stellar trumpet-player, with a warm tone and a broad range, and these are equalled by his skills as a composer. Truth be told, I had expected more avant-garde, but he brought a surprise of warm, very creative and captivating modern jazz. And that’s a great achievement.
http://freejazz-stef.blogspot.com/