Trumpeter Russ Johnson raises his Chicago profile

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Russ Johnson
  • Russ Johnson
The jazz world is filled with great musicians like trumpeter Russ Johnson—guys who play all of the time and appear on loads of records but have little name recognition outside of the cognoscenti. He's only made a handful of records under his own leadership, but he's turned up as a sideman on countless albums, including dates led by Jenny Scheinman, Michael Bates, Noah Preminger, Diedre Rodman, Lee Konitz, Jason Rigby, and Steve Swallow, among others. He should be better known, because the dude can play some serious trumpet.

About a year and a half ago Johnson moved to Milwaukee from New York, where he'd been based since the 90s, although he continues to maintain a regular presence there even after relocating. The Racine native landed a gig as a jazz instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, in Kenosha, which has meant that he's started turning up for gigs here in Chicago. I didn't catch wind that he was in the area until this past fall, when he played with the Jason Stein Quartet at the Chicago Jazz Festival, subbing for tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson, who had the flu. He did an excellent job filling in, fitting in as if he'd worked with the band for years.

Johnson plays a hard-swinging strain of postbop—brawny yet sophisticated, tartly melodic yet probing—that makes him sound like an appealingly scruffy sibling to Dave Douglas without the restless experimentation with nonjazz sources. Earlier this year the trumpeter released In Circles (Intakt), a superb quartet outing co-led by the great Swiss saxophonist Co Streiff (the Swiss rhythm section of bassist Christian Weber and drummer Julian Satorius rounded out the lineup). It was only the third album in his career with his name on the cover (he made a duo record with guitarist Mick Rossi and led his own quartet on a session released in 2004). The effort features tunes both by Johnson and Streiff and it covers lots of stylistic ground, from the Ornette Coleman-ish "Farks Larks" to "The Loper," which sounds like a title that Lee Morgan would've used, but the performance gravitates more toward a heavy, blues-driven burner with the energy of vintage Charles Mingus.

Johnson plays the second set at the Hideout on Wednesday (the drum duo of Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly occupies the opening slot), leading bass clarinetist Stein, Daisy, and bassist Anton Hatwich through a set of his own music. Below you can check out "The Loper."

Today's playlist:

Anna Järvinen, Jag Fick Feeling (Häpna)
Alexander Hawkins Ensemble, All There, Ever Out (Babel)
Les Aïssawa de Fès, Trance Ritual (Institut du Monde Arabe)
Sally Timms & Jon Langford, Songs of False Hope and High Values (Bloodshot)
Kelly Brothers, Sanctified Southern Soul (Excello/AVI)

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