Max Johnson is a bassist and composer living in New York City. He plays in the avant-garde jazz & bluegrass scenes, and has performed throughout North America and Europe. His albums have been profiled in the New York Times, JazzTimes, the New York City Jazz Record, JazzColours, and in 2012, he was voted Best Newcomer Musician in the El Intruso international critics poll.
Max was kind enough to answer a few questions here at AMN.
While you’ve been very active in the New York creative jazz scene of late, you’re still a relative newcomer. Can you fill us in on your background and history?
I started playing the electric bass when I was 13 in New Jersey, listening mostly to classic rock, fusion and prog-rock. I played with a local band in high school and then joined the School of Rock All-Stars, which was an “elite” group of teens that toured the country playing classic rock hits with guest stars. It was a good experience, and allowed me to get a few months of touring, both in the US and Europe, under my belt before the end of highschool. It was towards the end of high school that I started listening to jazz (mostly Mingus, Monk and 60’s free jazz), decided I wanted to play the upright bass, and then decided to go to the New School to study music.
During my time at the New School I got a chance to study with Reggie Workman, Henry Grimes, Mark Helias, Cameron Brown, Jane Ira Bloom, Bill Kirchner, Marc Copland, Jeff Carney and many other great folks. While I was attending school, I was going out to concerts as often as I possibly could, helping out by volunteering at the door at the Stone, and trying to meet as many of my heroes as possible. At the same time I was getting hired for a lot of work as a bluegrass bass player, a music which I still love and continue to play often. At that time I hosted a series at the Yippie Museum to debut new music, and was lucky enough to meet Lou Grassi & Steve Swell who called me for some of my first improv gigs early on, and through them, Henry Grimes, Perry Robinson and a few others, I met a big handful of musicians in the city.
While all that was going on, I was still going out constantly and seeing music and meeting musicians, all the while practicing and composing. When I finally thought I had a good handful of tunes and connections, I recorded my debut album “Quartet”, with Mark Whitecage, Steve Swell & Tyshawn Sorey, which then came out on NotTwo in 2012. That album was my first turn as a bandleader with real professionals, and it was a great learning experience for me, and allowed me to play some of the first music I’d written. Around the time we recorded that album, I also put my trio together with Kirk Knuffke & Ziv Ravitz, and we’ve been playing regularly since (as regular as you can in NYC).
How did you come to be involved in avant / free jazz?
I honestly don’t know, there wasn’t one big defining moment for me, and more a gradual shift into wanting to be an improviser. Early on when I was playing in rock bands, I really liked “jamming” and getting to make up my own parts & solos. My dad was a big part of my musical upbringing, being a great drummer and composer, he played me a lot of different music, and helped me discover new things based on what I was into. So he exposed me to things like the early 70’s King Crimson, where free improvisation was a big part of their sound, and later great records like “Karma” by Pharoah Sanders, “Meditations” by John Coltrane, or “Free Jazz” by Ornette. That music really hit me the first time I heard it and I wanted to learn what was going on there. Unlike a lot of people I know, I was into more “out” and “avant-garde” jazz before I was into anything straight ahead, so it shaped how I learned and practiced, but as I’ve learned, I’ve come to really appreciate the whole history of the music.
Your latest Max Johnson Trio album, “The Invisible Trio” is coming out soon. How did that come together and was the process any different from when you wrote and recorded for the group’s first album?
It came together because we had been playing most of those tunes for a while since the 1st record, “Elevated Vegetation” came out on FMR, and I really wanted to make another recording. But, I realized that there were a few things that I wanted to do differently so I sculpted the set around old tunes I had written, and new ones that would help support the other ones. I wanted to avoid vamps on this album, as I feel I wrote too many vamp-y tunes on the first record. I also wanted to write some more music with chord changes, which wasn’t a big part of the first record, because the melodies I wrote for this record really called for those harmonies. Kirk really plays beautifully over changes (or over anything), so I wrote the tunes we did specifically with that in mind. Ziv can really play anything, so I wanted to have a different set of tunes for him and Kirk to play with than the first record, and I think we definitely achieved that.
On “The Invisible Trio” the group utilizes space that sometimes is open, and at other times is filled with notes. You also seem to juxtapose traditional and modern jazz aesthetics. Was it your intent to take this approach, or did it evolve naturally?
The original idea behind this band was to be an acoustic group that could be super flexible in all aspects of the music. I tend to write simple tunes for the group so that we can really stretch them in every direction, and there’s not a lot to worry about. If the music needs to swing, it can swing; if it needs a real minimalist or aggressive approach, it can have it; if it needs to have the changes played or ignored, we can do that. That being said, the aesthetic of the group is something that I don’t think I can or really want to totally control, and as we play together more and more, there are more territories visited, chances being taken, and directions headed in. Sonically I think it’s a really nice balance and very dynamic, and coming from someone who likes to play an acoustic bass, that was a strong consideration in the inception of the band. But I really like where it’s come, and I’ve started writing some new music for the group, both for the trio, and for the trio plus two other horns. I’m always genuinely excited to see where the music goes each concert, and I’m happy to play with these two masters.
Is there anyone in New York (or elsewhere) that you’d really like to play or record with?
To this day, I’ve had the pleasure of playing with so many of my heroes already, and so many that I never thought I’d ever get the chance to play with, so I’m content with my life so far. But, there are SO many amazing musicians playing in the world right now that I would be lying if I said there weren’t hundreds who I admire and would love to play with. Even out of the people I know personally in New York, I haven’t played with all of them, even some of my absolute favorites. In fact, I really need to get on that, because there’s no one to blame but myself for not putting something together!
But, off the top of my head, I would love to play with Joe Morris, Evan Parker, Roscoe Mitchell, Gerald Cleaver, Gerry Hemmingway, Peter Brotzmann, Ches Smith, Tony Malaby, Marilyn Crispell, Craig Taborn, Russ Lossing, Paul Lytton, Jon Christensen, Bobby Bradford, Nate Wooley, Baikida Carroll, Peter Evans, Joe McPhee, Andrew Cyrille, Barry Guy, Simon Nabatov, Joachim Badenhorst, Lotte Anker, Agusti Fernandez, Matt Mitchell, Ralph Alessi, Michael Blake, Nasheet Waits, Ellery Eskelin, Marty Ehrlich, Ray Anderson, Michael Sarin, Kjell Nordeson, Chris Speed, Michael TA Thompson, Paul Dunmall, Barre Phillips, Henry Threadgill, Pheeroan Aklaff, Herb Robertson, Paal Nilssen-Love, John Butcher, Mats Gustafsson, Trevor Watts, Vladimir Tarasov, Fred Frith, Jason Stein, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Tim Daisy, Jeb Bishop, James Falzone, Anthony Coleman, Paul Flaherty, Raymond Strid, Chris Corsano, Sam Pluta, Tatsuya Nakatani, Mark Sanders, Vijay Anderson, Phillip Greenlief, Darren Johnston, Lisa Mezzacappa, Don Byron, Bill Frisell, Joey Baron, Rudy Royston, Jerome Harris, George Garzone, Randy Peterson, Ron Miles, Paul Bley, and I’m sure hundreds more that I’ll kick myself for forgetting!
Tell us about what you’ve got coming up in 2014 with respect to releases and performances.
2014 is looking like it’s going to be an exciting year for recordings, with “The Invisible Trio” (with Kirk Knuffke & Ziv Ravitz) coming out on Fresh Sound-New Talent in February, “The Prisoner” (with Ingrid Laubrock, Mat Maneri & Tomas Fujiwara) coming out on NoBusiness in April, and “Big Eyed Rabbit” (with Ross Martin & Jeff Davis) coming out in the summer on NotTwo. Also, I played on a handful of recordings that are coming soon, including Karl Berger’s trio with Tani Tabal, Thomas Heberer’s Garden with Lou Grassi, Jocie Adams’ group Arc Iris, and a few more that I am probably forgetting.
In addition to those three releases, I’m playing 3 gigs with my trio: a CD release at JACK on February 10th, at the Clemente Soto Velez on March 31, and at Barbes on April 20th (with Michael Attias & Ingrid Laubrock joining). My Silver Quartet, with Susan Alcorn, Kris Davis & Mike Pride is playing Greenwich Music House on February 26th and is recording the day after. The CD release gig for the Prisoner is at Legion on May 4th. In addition to all that, I am playing with the great Finnish saxophonist Mikko Innanen in a quartet with Sylvie Courvoisier & Lou Grassi at Ibeam on February 8; with Lou Grassi’s trio with James Brandon Lewis at Quinn’s on March 3rd; with the wonderful Sacramento-based guitarist Ross Hammond for two gigs at Ibeam on April 4th, with Stephen Haynes, JD Parran & Andrew Drury, and at Spectrum on April 8th with Billy Mintz; a duo show with James Brandon Lewis on April 22nd at Freddy’s; and a 2-3 week tour with Arc Iris in March. I also just finished a great improvised recording with Perry Robinson and Diane Moser which was really a treat. All in all it’s looking to be a really nice year!