A Dream Band 

Darren Johnston's quintet supergroup sets a new bar for Bay Area jazz.

What happens when you get five of the Bay Area's top improvisers in a room and record them? Magic, that's what. Assuming they're not egomaniacal, great things can happen, and that's certainly the case with Darren Johnston's latest quintet, a supergroup featuring Smith Dobson V, Devin Hoff, Ben Goldberg, and Sheldon Brown, plus Rob Reich on a couple of tracks. And like Johnston's other group, the Nice Guy Trio, the members of his band collectively breathe life into Johnston's imaginative and richly textured charts.

"This is my dream band," said trumpeter Johnston over a sandwich at an East Bay watering hole. Named as one of "25 trumpeters of the future" by Down Beat magazine, he's been a mainstay of the bay's improvising community for years, spending time at Mills with Fred Frith, collaborating with Myra Melford and Ben Goldberg, playing in Marcus Shelby's big band, and carving out a niche with his warm tone and gift for introspective melody.

"I like quiet music," he explained. "I like to invite people in, not blow them out." On his latest disc, The Edge of the Forest, you can hear the quietness, punctuated by bursts of aggressive activity. Solos are set against suspended dissonances or odd-time ostinatos, with a clear emphasis on contrapuntal interaction, especially clear in the intertwining lines of clarinetist Goldberg and tenor sax player Brown. The horn writing is orchestral in scope, evocative of Debussy or Gil Evans. The floating chords in "Foggy" underline twisting obbligatos, then the piece morphs into a beautiful duet between Hoff's woody bass and Goldberg's clarinet, and evolves into a duet between Goldberg and Reich's clarinet-like accordion. Finally, the whole band kicks back into a multivoice simultaneous improvisation, wailing in contrast to the prior intimacy.

Johnston says he writes to the strength of each player. "I'm hearing those people in my imagination," he said of the writing process. "I know that Sheldon would sound great on this kind of a thing, so I'll make it a feature for him. I know that Ben would sound great if I just let him play a cadenza for twenty minutes, so I'll work that in." It's clear that Johnston puts formidable thought into the compositions. In fact, on his web site, there's a link to something called "the musician's think tank." He said he practices by taking a phrase and manipulating it by compositional techniques through all twelve keys.

Originally from Toronto, Johnston awakened to jazz through the albums Nefertiti by Miles Davis, Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman, and the Eighties-era Art Ensemble album Third Decade. All that at an age when most kids are into punk or metal or some such. "Those three records got me possessed," he said. "I was fourteen or fifteen. Other jazz I'd heard wasn't that hip! ... Louis Armstrong — I didn't get it." Then he laughs: "That was remarkably unhip of me!"

Clearly, Johnston's love of Coleman has stayed with him, as he regularly plays Coleman's tunes with the Nice Guy Trio (which includes Daniel Fabricant on bass and Reich on accordion). He even subverts the restaurant gig, where you're usually supposed to play polite background jazz. "I've done restaurants with Devin and we play Ornette tunes, we just keep 'em melodic and quiet," he said. Pressed on the idea of having to play those wallpaper gigs, Johnston continued: "There's definitely some times when it's a job, and I'm just trying to make some bread. Luckily for me, I love playing standards. I have a ball on those gigs."

How does that experience differ from leading his own groups? "Well, being part of someone else's thing is fun!" he laughed. "You know? You just show up and play and that's that. Leading a band, it's all e-mails and setting up the rehearsal. ... Being the musical director of your own project is the payoff."

Which brings us back to the dream band. Johnston was commissioned to write and present a piece for Intersection for the Arts, giving him the opportunity to put the quintet together. The problem was, he had no music for it. "The commission piece was a carryover from Mills, it was dealing with some electronics and layering," he said. "We followed that with more jazz-based stuff that went really well. The next year we did a concert where we were doing more of that stuff. Then I kept writing, some things got pushed to the side, and new things came."

The recording is mostly live, with minimal editing — leaving in a few warts, according to Johnston, not that they can be identified. Except for the accordion on two tracks, the lack of a piano or other harmonic instrument leaves the chordal writing for the horns in clear relief. It's all recorded beautifully, warm and clear, so you can focus on the edge-of-reality swinging of Hoff and Dobson, follow the soloist wherever he leads you, or get sucked into the writing and ensemble textures. The Edge of the Forest is a clear highlight in Johnston's career so far, and in Bay Area jazz this year.

"Everything I do, even the more experimental stuff, is really melody-based," Johnston said. "As an improviser, I try to relate everything to one or two ideas that I'm talking about, trying to create texture from melody." And that pretty much sums it all up.

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