Howard Johnson Tribute
with Keith Hartshorn-Walton, Michel Delage, Petr Cancura, Dave Schroeder
Options Jazz Lounge, Brookstreet Hotel
Saturday, August 26, 2017 – 8 to 11:40 p.m.
Howard Johnson has been called the King of the Jazz Tuba. In a 50+-year career, the American jazz musician has played with everyone from Charles Mingus to Gil Evans to Hank Mobley to John Scofield to Tomasz Stanko. He was the original conductor of the Saturday Night Live Band in the late 70’s, and accompanied James Taylor in a performance of “Jelly Man Kelly” on Sesame Street in 1983. He also played on The Band's live film, The Last Waltz, and arranged two of the songs they played. Besides the tuba, he plays baritone sax, clarinet and other reed instruments, and penny whistle.
And he's still going strong. I heard him last year at the Guelph Jazz Festival, playing in a tribute with Jane Bunnett to pianist Don Pullen. Just this year, he released his most recent album with his six-tuba group, Gravity.
So this was not your typical tribute show, which are generally for musicians who are, if not dead, at least not playing regularly. Johnson is still in the scene, composing and playing.
On the other hand, we have a musician here in Ottawa who knows Johnson's music very well: jazz multi-instrumentalist Keith Hartshorn-Walton, whose primary instrument is also the tuba. Hartshorn-Walton has studied regularly with Johnson, and wrote his Doctor of Music thesis on “The Changing Role of the Tuba in Jazz”.
For this show, Hartshorn-Walton teamed up with drummer Michel Delage, who has been presenting monthly jazz tribute shows in the Options Jazz Lounge for 2½ years, plus saxophonist Petr Cancura and bassist Dave Schroeder.
Over three sets, the quartet showcased Johnson's wide range of styles and musical interests, in a performance that clearly grabbed their audience's attention and interest. Whether mainstream jazz to blues to roots, the music was consistently energetic and rich, with all the musicians contributing to the full sound.
Their opening number, the jazz classic “Stolen Moments”, showed how well Cancura's tenor sax could meld with Hartshorn-Walton's tuba, both conveying the haunting feel of Oliver Nelson's melody. They followed that with a number by a 60s jazz tuba player, Ray Draper, which Draper recorded with his mentor John Coltrane. “Clifford's Kappa” was a scintillating piece, with Cancura's bright soprano sax contrasting with Hartshorn-Walton's fluttering lines on tuba.
Next came a rollicking blues, by Archie Shepp, another Johnson collaborator – and then “Kelly Blue”, which was recorded by Gravity. The quartet took that number into an extended exploration, still keeping some of the bluesy feel but adding more accented rhythms. The audience greeted both with strong applause.
Throughout, Hartshorn-Walton introduced the pieces with anecdotes and background, giving the crowd a better idea of the breadth of Johnson's career and musical interests.
The second set was rootsier, opening with an extended and vigorous guitar solo by Schroeder, shining and echoing, on “Sweet Mama Janisse”. That song was from blues musician Taj Mahal's album, The Real Thing, on which Johnson played, and turned into a deep, dirty, grooving piece with New Orleans accents. Next up was a Johnson original, “Little Black Lucille”, from his latest album, Testimony. Johnson plays the piece on penny whistle; the quartet rearranged it to have Cancura on soprano sax and Hartshorn-Walton on piano, giving the song a sustained gospel feel. As the last notes on soprano soared over the piano, the audience burst into strong applause.
Trombonist Mike Fahie was raised in Ottawa and took his first jazz steps here, but is now based in Brooklyn. He was back in town this weekend, and sat in on several numbers, including a vibrant version of McCoy Tyner's “Passion Dance”, with tuba, trombone, and tenor combining in an intense and extended experimentation with the melody.
The second set closed with a number from The Band's concert film, The Last Waltz, which Johnson played on and arranged. Hartshorn-Walton said that “It Makes No Difference” was one of his favourite tunes from that album; the quartet gave it a spiritual and intense reading, sincere and exact, and was again rewarded with strong clapping from the crowd.
On the weekend, the last set at the Brookstreet's Options Jazz Lounge tends to be the quietest, with the audience starting to fade away to their beds. But for this show, it was well worth staying till the end, with four strong pieces. Fahie came up to play with the quartet again, and they performed two flowing standards: “All of Me”, and “Yesterdays”.
For me, the highlight was American pianist Don Pullen's “Big Alice”, which I heard Johnson himself play in a memorable performance at Guelph. Here the quartet gave it a strongly propulsive treatment, with a touch of R&B groove. Hartshorn-Walton contributed a fast circling tuba solo, accented by Delage's pounding drumming, Fahie a sizzling and bit retro trombone solo, and Cancura a fluid tenor solo – and then Hartshorn-Walton added a sparkling piano interlude, with strings of notes interrupted by strong chords. He returned to tuba, and the three horns produced a multi-layered version of the tune's rhythmic signature, before ending with a fine flourish.
The final tune was one that Johnson played with songwriter James Taylor on “Sesame Street”. “Jelly Man Kelly” opened with a deep, insistent tuba riff, with soprano sax and trombone then joining in to create a happy, fluid groove. The three horns danced through the tune, each contributing expressive solos, and playing like they could keep going on and on, before finally ending with a last tuba flourish and drum roll.
It was a upbeat ending to an evening of well-played tunes which properly explored and showed off Howard Johnson's music.
This performance was OttawaJazzScene.ca’s Jazz Pick of the Week for August 24 to 30. Subscribe to OttawaJazzScene.ca’s weekly Jazz Bulletin so you don’t miss hearing about future shows like this one.
- Stolen Moments (Oliver Nelson)
- Clifford's Kappa (Ray Draper)
- Mama Too Tight (Archie Shepp)
- Kelly Blue (Wynton Kelly)
- Sweet Mama Janisse (from Taj Mahal's album, The Real Thing)
- Little Black Lucille (Howard Johnson) (from Howard Johnson and Gravity's most recent album, Testimony)
- Passion Dance (McCoy Tyner)
- Silver City Bound (from the album These Are My Roots - Clifford Jordan Plays Leadbelly)
- It Makes No Difference (Robbie Robertson) from The Last Waltz
- All of Me (Seymour Simons)
- Big Alice (Don Pullen)
- Yesterdays (Jerome Kern)
- Jelly Man Kelly (James Taylor)
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