Max Johnson Trio

Something Familiar
Fresh Sound New Talent FSNT 471

By Ken Waxman

After three CDs and about five years of collaboration, resourceful bassist/composer Max Johnson’s trio has attained a state of extraordinary cohesion. Filed out by the streamlined fluidity from Kirk Knuffke’s cornet and the complementary rhythms from drummer Ziv Ravitz, the trio can handle ballads and burners with equal aplomb.

Turning the narrow sound palate accessible from only three sources to its advantage, each sonic modulation reaches its intended position the way marbles fill the indentations on a Chinese checkers board, but without that game’s jarring clanks. The melody of slow-paced “Les Vague” for instance, is built around heartfelt muted cries from Knuffke, gorgeously harmonized with double bass tones that appear to be sprinkled not plucked. Its antithesis “Blips and Bloops” is unabashedly onomatopoeic, with the cornetist’s open-horn blasts and plunger smears so vivid that they’re practically emoticons, while Johnson’s spiccato triple stops strengthen the jocular theme with woody affirmations. “Hammer Song” may appear as if it’s designed to showcase Ravitz. Yet the few hard thumps he extracts from the deeper-toned parts of his kit are ultimately displaced by lively polyrhythms, as Johnson’s walking that reverberates with the power of a punch to the solar plexus, steers the tune forward.

Light and lively the sequential “Cold Blooded” and “Little Arnie” may be Something Familiar’s high point(s). In both the cornetist’s flutter tonguing and the bassist’s lilting stops move with the acumen and speed of Olympic skiers slaloming down a hill, nimbly avoiding obstacles emanating from Ravitz’s pumping rattles, and supple enough in execution to recap both tunes’ heads at the finale(s). Living up to the CD’s title, all tracks are a discernible mix of bop, cool and free motifs. But they aren’t familiar in a hackneyed or overused manner. Instead with well modulated contributions from all and with Johnson’s compositions as a base the disc confirms that distinguished jazz can be produced without resorting to extremes.

Tracks: Cindoze; Blips and Bloops; Cold Blooded; Little Arnie; Les Vague; Hammer Song; Something Familiar; Wind Song

Personnel: Kirk Knuffke: cornet; Max Johnson: bass; Ziv Ravitz: drums

—For The New York City Jazz Record September 2015