AMN Reviews: Max Johnson – In The West (2017; Clean Feed)

Take New York bassist Max Johnson, add Kris Davis on piano, Susan Alcorn on pedal steel guitar, with Mike Pride on drums, and you have the makings of a supergroup. On In The West, under Johnson’s leadership, this quartet of improvisers and innovators outdoes themselves – and that’s saying a lot.

Despite the album title and cover, there is no distinct western feel, despite a bit of twang from Alcorn. The four tracks, ranging in length from 7 to 21 minutes, instead are a cohesive showcase of the current creative music scene.

Ten Hands features Davis banging out a short Brubeck-styled theme and reprise as part of a much larger rhythm-driven improvisation. Johnson and Pride are in top form, with both demonstrating how to be active and unpredictable simultaneously. A good portion of this track is collective improvisation, with Johnson switching between picking and using a bow, Alcorn twisting notes, and Pride rattling away.

Greenwood begins with a free section before Davis leads the group in a more structured direction. Alcorn joins in this role, while Johnson and Pride provide atmosphere and fill in the empty spots. Eventually, this builds to Davis and Alcorn providing dense, rapid clusters of notes over a disjointed base.

The trend continues on Great Big Fat Person, with Davis and Alcorn setting forth angular melodies while improvising off of one another. Pride contributes busy, non-repetitive efforts. Alcorn’s speed picking, in particular, adds color to this piece. Eventually, Davis brings the group back to Earth with a repeating downtempo theme.

Once Upon a Time in the West manages to be the most evocative track of the bunch, combining a haunting, pastoral feel with industrial elements (the latter supplied by Pride’s cymbals). There is a heavy emphasis on extended techniques and spontaneous structure rather than melody or harmony, though those elements sneak in from time to time. Being the longest track, the quartet has plenty of room to stretch and explore at a deliberate pace.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of In The West is that Johnson, as the ostensible leader, does not dominate. The album does not come across as a bass player’s solo effort, though it does reflect Johnson’s penchant for subtle complexity. Instead, if I had been told that it was a leaderless recording, I would be none the wiser.

In The West is a rich offering from four musicians at their prime, and an easy album of the year candidate. Bravo.