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Monday, May 16, 2011

Musicians I Love - Howard Johnson

I got to hang out and listen to the mellow tones of Will Baker, bass trombonist extraordinaire, on Sunday afternoon. He is a wickedly talented low brass youngblood; energy and technique to burn. Listening to him is very exciting for a retired bass bone man like me. After his recital, I asked him if he had ever heard of Howard Johnson; he had not. I understand; Howard is almost 70 years old and Will is under 25. But anyone who digs the low-register wind instruments should check out HoJo.

Mr. Johnson started playing the baritone saxophone at the age of 13; he added the tuba when he was 14. He decided to focus on jazz, but not the traditional New Orleans trad jazz tuba stuff (not that there is anything wrong with that). HoJo wanted to front the band and play bebop on the big horn. He made the trek to New York when he was 22 years of age and was embraced by the late, great Charles Mingus. Howard soon became the go-to tubist/bari saxophonist in the Apple, playing with Hank Crawford, Archie Shepp and a host of others. Word began to leak out about his prowess; he was pulled to the west coast and played in more mainstream groups like the Buddy Rich Big Band. He also worked with Oliver Nelson, Carla Bley, Pharoah Sanders and a host of other modern jazz greats.

Howard also thought that the world needed a tuba ensemble, so he formed one, called Substructure, in 1968. This was the group that hooked up with the great bluesman, Taj Mahal, in the early 1970's. Taj toured nationally with the tuba choir as part of his back-up band (check out Taj Mahal's live album, "The Real Thing," recorded at Filmore West in San Francisco in 1971 - whoooeee! It still kills me). HoJo was a boundary-busting guy - jazz, R&B,, rock, blues, orchestral music all interested him. He even served as the leader of the Saturday Night Live band in the late 1970's.

Howard has kept the tuba ensemble concept alive. His current group is called "Gravity," and it is touring internationally. Gravity has released a couple of albums, and they are must-have records for low brass players.

So Will - I love the Lebedev Concerto for bass trombone, but check out Howard Johnson and Gravity playing "Big Alice." Whooooeeee!

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