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5 Albums: John Christensen

The idea of the “5 albums” project is to ask musicians to pick five albums they want to talk about – with no other instructions. I tell them they can be any five albums – five things they’ve been listening to, their five favorite albums of all time, five albums that they don’t even like but inspire interesting discussion, if they want to do that.


Our inaugural guest is bassist John Christensen, with whom I’ve had many of these same types of discussions over late-night beers over the years. John will be playing with his group at the Jazz Estate in Milwaukee on January 15.


John's introductory note: HO-HUMERS. So, these are NOT ho-humers but the response I get when recommending them. I don’t understand it. So, I chalk it up to taste, but… CMON!


Steve Tibbets – Big Map Idea


JC: Original voice and sound on the guitar. Amazing orchestration… layering, pace, surprises. Wait, is this improvised, through-composed?


PD: It’s an interesting sound too percussion-wise. I know this album because you put me on to it several years ago and I really do like it – it doesn’t sound like much else you get from the jazz world, and even among the ECM collection it stands out to me – like, not that far from Ralph Towner, but also way different. How did you hear about this album? Do you think there’s anything else that sort of reminds you of it?


JC: I think I originally heard this album back when I was still playing guitar…maybe my guitar teacher showed it to me? It could have also very easily been a thing where I saw an album in TOWER RECORDS that had BLACK MOUNTAIN SIDE on it from Led Zeppelin and just bought it to check out. I never knew Steve was from the Midwest. And maybe I also was attracted to it because it is also a real GUITAR album while not really having any solos…imagine that! I think you are right about the percussion too… I like how the use of tablas doesn’t make it vampy and modal like other ECM offerings like Making Music by Zakir Hussain.


As for others albums that remind me of it… it really stands apart. Maybe Steve betrays his true buddha/metal style on albums like The Fall Of Us All (definitely worth a listen). I was checking out a lot of the albums on Bill Laswell’s AXIOM label at this time too… so maybe this felt like the acoustic version of that. Also I kinda hear some Mahavishnu Orchestra indirectly in it, but also I was checking out all of the REAL WORLD albums at the time and can also definitely hear these folk melodies from all around the world in it too.


Lee Konitz – Live at Birdland


JC: Just an incredible vibe. Everyone LISTENING so deeply. Brad and Charlie on “Lullaby.” Maybe one track I’ve listened to the most in the last 10 years. Here is an example review I read on QOBUZ that is the response I get when recommending it. This guy “Phil” could care so little that he thinks the bass solos are bowed. Actually a compliment? You decide. “…is this album of any value to jazz as a whole? It is not.” Wow.


PD: You go on to quote more of that review – and while I’m certainly willing to dismiss the thoughts of someone who believes that Brad Mehldau’s reputation is “difficult to explain,” I get the point you’re getting at. People find this music boring sometimes. I think that another famous Konitz album – Motion – this same sort of feeling can sometimes happen with people. I’m certainly not saying this music needs to be justified, but when you’re listening to music like this, what are the things that you’re keying in on? What is it about this album that makes you disagree so completely with that reviewer?


JC: I think it comes down to what you expect to find when you listen to music. Are you telling the musicians what you want to hear by your attention span? What if they don’t give it to you? Do you turn off or are you inquisitive enough to dig deeper and see what they are communicating? Certainly all the qualities are there for a “boring” album… long songs with everybody soloing, all the tunes are in a general time range and swing feel (definitely not Alfred Lion’s Blue Note formulation of ballad, blues, straight tune and burner), re-treaded-to-death standards… and this is what I think the reviewer missed. It requires you to look past the form and directly at the content. So what I feel like what they are directing me to when listening to this album are the simplest things done superbly… the touch on the instruments… sensitivity, melody, a cohesive group sound, and experience and a resonance that stays with me long after the recording.


PD: Do you tend to like live jazz albums more or less?


JC: I don’t think I have a preference either way, but on this occasion, I think it is great to hear what a group like this does on a particular evening. The lineup with Brad is also intriguing to me. Older musicians with this one young guy, what is the dynamic like? It feels like they have all been playing together forever.


David Crosby – Here if you Listen


JC: This just somehow brings me back to west coast living… I can almost feel the Mount Tamalpais clouds rolling in. Becca Stevens’ tenor guitar intro on “Vagrants of Venice” is as good a lick as any Soundgarden thumper. Michael League playing guitar and singing? Who is this guy? Aren’t you an uber bassist, bandleader? Oh… maybe you aren’t playing bass because… MICHELLE WILLIS.


PD: I checked this album and liked it – I’m a Becca Stevens die-hard, and I thought the tune that she did with Crosby on her album Regina was powerful. I felt that this album certainly had its moments, but it didn’t catch me quite in the way that some of Stevens’ other work did. But I’ve also never lived on the West Coast. I had to think about it for a bit but that guitar intro on “Vagrants of Venice” – reminds me a bit of this metal dude named Devin Townsend. Have you ever heard him? Check him out – the “quieter” tunes on the album Terria kind of sound like that.


JC: I haven’t checked out Devin… but I will! I also think it is definitely a David Crosby album and NOT a Becca Stevens album… and he can have a laid back pace and delivery that, again, has a patient, understated drama to it. I also think it is a lovely example of one of the very few pop albums without drums that I can’t imagine that drums would have made any better.


PD: Any track or two in particular you think that people should check out?


JC: I really like “Vagrants” or “I am No Artist”… but it really is an album’s album!


Larry Goldings – Music from the Front Room


JC: Best drum and bass sound together, ever. This is a hill I’m willing to die on.


PD: Wow! Quite a statement. First: What do you think makes it so good? (Goldings plays piano on this record with David Piltch on bass and Jay Bellerose on drums.) Second: what are some of your other favorite drum/bass combos?


JC: I’m kinda shying away from such a strong statement now (editor’s note: this interview was conducted over the span of a couple of weeks, via email), maybe pretty arrogant in my drum and bass opinions… but there it is. There is just something to this album… I think it is recorded on an upright piano… sounds like it. It feels parlor-room but exquisite. I also like how Larry voices things… just… perfect. If I played piano, I’d want to play like this. Look how much he does with these great voicings placed in just the perfect place. I love the organ songs that seem to be like bygone church jazz sounds that you could think would be a little cheesy and schmaltzy but they have so much heart and melody… love it. I also have to give it up to Jay Bellerose’s bass drum. I don’t think there are many drummers who can play with that big and deep sounding drum and make it work so well with an upright bass. To me it is just butter.


Some of my other favorite combos… I think I better keep it modern rhythm section… and of course I’ll think of about a million more tomorrow. But right now: Bill Stewart did a couple albums with Larry Grenadier that are an incredible sounding blend. Joey Baron and Kermit Driscoll, Dave King and Reid Anderson, Tain and Hurst! Gerald Cleaver makes every bass player sound incredible! But I really like him and John Hebert and Chris Lightcap.


Adam Hurt – Earth Tones


JC: Yep. Banjo Music.


PD: I can get down with some banjo, and this is certainly very charming. What is it about this album that really draws you in? To me there’s something calming, almost therapeutic about it. Which isn’t something I usually think when it comes to solo banjo.


JC: Maybe that the banjo is a gourd banjo that takes the edge off? I don’t know… also the subtle support of guitar, pedal steel and bass on this album is wonderful. I also like hearing the old-time song forms… does something different to my brain. But yes, I find it charming and earthy and I love these melodies.

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