Max Johnson

The Prisoner
NoBusiness Records NBCD 66

By Ken Waxman

Literally program music since this suite was inspired by the TV program The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan; this CD has a lot more going for it than an appeal to ‘60s cult TV fans. Although song titles refer to characters in the series about a former secret agent held prisoner in a mysterious village, the drama and emotion expressed by composer/bassist Max Johnson plus saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, violist Mat Maneri and drummer Tomas Fujiwara relates to musical not visual challenges. Thus there’s no reason to know that McGoohan’s character was called No. 6, or his nemesis No. 2, to appreciate the interpretations.

If anything tracks named for less prominent characters such as “No.12 Schitzoid Man (Gemini)” and “No.48 Living in Harmony” demonstrate the bassist’s scope in working out his own musical ideas. The second piece relies on a walking bass line to regularize what is initially characterized by a contrapuntal face-off involving Maneri’s harsh spiccato and Laubrock’s altissimo squeals. With the bass part strengthened by Fujiwara’s confident thumps, the fiddler’s multi-string emphasis and the reedist’s shaking vibrations eventually join the others for a satisfyingly finale. Alternately, “No.12…” is particularly commanding, since its mercurial structure is as unpredictable as a schizophrenic’s moods. Beginning and ending with scrapping abrasiveness from both string players plus Laubrock’s shrills in dog-whistle register, the middle section is as pastorally unthreatening as a violin, cello and flute chamber piece if measured drum beats are ignored. The concluding viola/saxophone call-and-response fittingly arranges the stiletto sharpness of the two into proper context.

With a good director’s pacing, Johnson allows the final “No.2 Once Upon a Time/No.1 Fallout” to recapture some of the suite’s previous highlights before building up to a climatic finale. After Laubrock and Maneri outline the theme in different tempos, Fujiwara, like a character actor hitherto content to remain in the background, moves to centre stage with a solo that’s swinging without being flashy. His martial percussion climax is the scene changer leading to a near Appalachian fiddle feature from Maneri and some strained reed textures from Laubrock. The entire band's multiphonic crescendo then subsides into a proper conclusion.

Johnson has created a fitting salute to The Prisoner with this disc. More importantly he’s put the emphasis on first-rate music rather than the concept.

Tracks: No.6 Arrival/No.58 Orange Alert; X04; No.12 Schitzoid Man (Gemini); No.24 Hammer into Anvil; No.48 Living in Harmony; The New Number 2; No.2 Once Upon a Time/No.1 Fallout

Personnel: Ingrid Laubrock: tenor saxophone; Mat Maneri: viola; Max Johnson: bass;

Tomas Fujiwara: drums

—For The New York City Jazz Record July 2014