Even in jazz circles, where longevity is rewarded, Montreal pianist Jeff Johnston has created and nurtured some exceptionally long-standing musical relationships.

Together with Jim Vivian on bass and Michael Billard on drums, he released a new CD last month. It comes three decades after this trio played their first concert, a live recording for CBC Newfoundland. And the CD's producer also produced that 1983 show.

On Friday, Johnston will premiere the CD in Ottawa at a concert at GigSpace. That show will demonstrate another longstanding relationship, since his Montreal trio – Fraser Hollins on bass and Richard Irwin on drums – will be replacing Vivian and Billard. And if that trio doesn't have quite the same seniority, Johnston has still been playing with Hollins for a decade and Irwin for at least five years.

The CD is called Returning [Jeff Johnston Music, 2013], and Johnston says it marks the return of both the band and their producer to their roots: “that music we listened when we were young. I hear all that in this album and when we play together.”

Those roots are in the European jazz of the 1970s and 80s, particularly ECM recordings by pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Eberhard Weber, and drummer Jon Christensen, which Johnston says he, Vivian, and Billard discovered as they grew up in Newfoundland. “We listened to that music together a lot and tried to capture that feel.”

“It just represents what we've been doing for the last 30 years, really”, Johnston said. “I went into the studio knowing exactly the sort of sound and the feel that I wanted to have. I think part of it was the musicians, Mike and Jim, and also the producer, Glen Tilley: together we developed a sound from playing together a lot and also recording together a lot.”

The album's sound is lyrical and thoughtful, with repeated motifs and considerable input from all three musicians. “It's a counterpoint approach to playing rather than piano being supported by bass and drums. I think of it as contrapuntal, everyone contributing at the same time. I think also the use of space – that's something we developed as we played. The more we played, we were able to allow each other to leave space or to leave space ourselves when we played. And that's an environment where you can be more contrapuntal or interactive.”

“I think it's because we've been playing so long together, but it's also because we really studied that too. We really gravitated towards that music when we were younger: all those great bands that were interactive, like the Miles Davis Quintet in the 60s.”

Johnston has released four previous CDs, all of which include Vivian and Billard, and the last two of which were nominated for Juno Awards. Nuage [Justin Time, 2001] featured two American jazz greats – guitarist John Abercrombie and saxophonist Dave Liebman – while The Jeff Johnston Quartet with Kenny Wheeler [Unity, 1992] featured Wheeler on trumpet and Martin Rickert on guitar. Johnston said the new album's music in particular reflects back to the first CD he released with just Vivian and Billard: The Field [NuJazz, 1998].

I think of it as contrapuntal, everyone contributing at the same time. ... The more we played, we were able to allow each other to leave space or to leave space ourselves when we played.
   – Jeff Johnston

The first impetus for the new album came about five years ago. “We did a radio show about ten years ago for CBC in St. John's. We'd do a lot of radio shows back then, and I remember I didn't really think very much of that session when we did it. Then I heard it about five years ago and it just hit me how far we had come as a band and as a sound, too, so that's when I really said, 'We have to make a whole album of this material, of this type of material.' "

The album contains seven originals by Johnston and one standard, “As Time Goes By”. He wrote most of the tunes on the album over the last five years, a few coming in just before the recording session in September, 2012.

Both the music in and the title of Returning were also influenced by recent explorations with Taoism and Oriental martial arts, he said, which he has “really become intrigued with. … Returning is just that life cycle idea. It's something that is a thread through those philosophies.”

One track, “Cavern Heaven”, was specifically influenced by Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson. “I always just loved that he always had these great rhythm sections. There's something about the feel that was just so unique and so different from other bands, and I just really wanted to capture that sort of vibe, that kind of looseness and freeness that he brings to the music, especially with his trio music. That European thing again. It's a looser thing.”

Tilley was also very important as producer in perfecting the album, Johnston said. “Glen was hands-on right from the get-go. I'm really comfortable working with Glen, so I gave him full charge. He's very much a perfectionist and he took great care in making sure we had the right studio, we had a fantastic piano, all the right microphones, the right space, the right atmosphere for the recording – not to mention, after the recording, just countless hours of time that went in to the mixing and the mastering and just getting everything just right.”

I'm really happy with this album, more than I've been with anything else. ... It's a documentation of what we've been doing for thirty years. But now I think in a much more mature way and in a much more deeper way.
   – Jeff Johnston

At GigSpace, listeners will hear the material from Returning, Johnston said, and he might throw in a few older pieces such as “Nuage”. With Hollins and Irwin instead of Vivian and Billard, the music won't necessarily be identical to that on the album, but “they know the material and it's still the same approach. One thing that I really like about those two is not only they're easy to play with and they're great musicians, but they adapt to situations so well, whether it's a straight-ahead situation or with a singer, or playing music that's a bit more looser and freer, like my music.”

He noted that he'd actually played with Hollins and Irwin “more times than I've played with Mike and Jim in the last 10 years, that's for sure. These guys are fantastic – just incredible musicians, just real competent professionals.”

And playing live will let the trio stretch out a bit more. At the album launch at the Upstairs Club in Montreal on March 5, “one comment I did get was that the band was maybe a little more dynamically diverse live than on the CD. Which is kind of true, because we can get pretty cranking and raucous at times. I like those extremes – I like going from soft and pretty, to loud and raucous.”

In an interview in Downbeat in 2002, pianist Paul Bley was quoted as saying: “The purpose of making a record is not to redo your own stuff or somebody else’s stuff. The purpose of making a record is to add to the literature of the music.” When asked if he felt he'd done that with Returning, Johnston's answer was an emphatic “Yes”.

“I'm really happy with this album, more than I've been with anything else. I knew exactly what I wanted it to be. I knew exactly what I wanted it to sound like. Us, without any question. It's what we do. And to me it's just a documentation of that, it's a documentation of what we've been doing for thirty years. But now I think in a much more mature way and in a much more deeper way.”

A Coda on Jams

Jeff Johnston hosted jam sessions at the Upstairs Club during the Montreal Jazz Festival for about ten years. I asked him what his reaction was to the possibility (still uncertain) that the Ottawa Jazz Festival might cancel its long-running jam sessions.

“That's too bad. … That's where all the cats go to chill out and play a few tunes and hang out together. That's the place where it happens, so I think yes, it's very necessary, … especially for Canadian musicians. It's where we all get to hang out together, you know, because you don't always see the guys from Ottawa or the guys from Toronto or the guys from Vancouver. That's the place where you see all these guys and that's the place where you hang out and play. So that's disappointing if they don't do that. I'd say it's high priority.”

“The fun thing about a jam session is that you get to play with so many different people, you know, and one of the great things about jazz is just I can meet any jazz musician anywhere in the world today and we could sit down and we could play together because we all share a common repertoire to some extent. Again just being able to play with, not only great musicians that dropped in and dropped by, but just to play with different styles of players ... you get different combinations of musicians together and there's so many different directions it could go. So it's always interesting to have all these players together and just know that the music could go in any direction at any time.”

    – Alayne McGregor