Editor's Note: This review was originally published in June 2018, around the album's release. The album is available on bandcamp.
If you're a jazz fan in southern Wisconsin, you're likely familiar with John Christensen. The prolific bassist has been one of the region's most active sidemen since his arrival nearly twenty years ago. You may not, however, be familiar with John's work as a composer or a bandleader. Christensen does co-lead the Milwaukee-based Lesser Lakes Trio and the Madison-based Space Junk, but it is rare to see him on a project entirely his own.
On Dear Friend, Christensen's debut album as the sole bandleader, we really get to see his composing take center stage. The album showcases his melodic writing, and a band that creates the perfect texture for this music. Joined by pianist and fellow Madisonian Johannes Wallmann, as well as Chicago musicians Dave Miller on guitar and Andrew Green on drums, Christensen provides us with a window into his musical spirit.
Dear Friend begins with the title track, and one thing that is immediately apparent is that melody is going to be a major focus. The tune starts without drums, so our ears hear just the tune, which sounds like it could have been on one of those great 80s ECM albums by Pat Metheny or Oregon. There's a good deal of improvising on this album – Christensen and Wallmann both play great solos on this track – but the tunes tend to stay compact and the composing is very much at the forefront.
A familiar trope in jazz education is figuring out how to effectively work with a group that has a guitarist and a pianist; throughout this album, Wallmann and Miller work in tandem beautifully. The dance they perform around each other is a joy to listen to, melding together when appropriate, or sidestepping each other, with Wallmann perhaps shifting into a doubled bass line or acting as the lead melody voice. They trade off playing backbeat patterns (Miller on “Something Said in Passing” and Wallmann on the evocatively titled “Spooky Action at a Distance”), a good example of the way that they each find the appropriate role on whatever tune they're playing. (Their blend is given a major boost due to an excellent mixing job by Ric Probst, who also engineered the record, recorded at Tanner Monagle in Milwaukee.)
There's a strand of jazz music that is very much influenced by Americana music, and Christensen is an admitted fan of the heavyweights of that scene, musicians like Bill Frisell, Charlie Haden and Julian Lage. But it doesn't just end there for him. Christensen mentions John Denver as an influence, as well, and there's a definite folk element to a lot of the music. This is most obvious on the aptly titled “Hay-de Hoedown,” on which Christensen and Green really could be backing up an actual hoedown.
Green and Miller, both Chicago residents who Christensen first came across while playing in Milwaukee, are perhaps uniquely qualified for this kind of music. Green is a member of the award-winning folk ensemble Jonas Friddle and the Majority, and Miller's own 2016 album Old Door Phantoms further explores this Americana-influenced jazz music. Christensen says about Miller: “He's able somehow to play with this rootsy feel but in outer space, too. He's a perfect texturalizer to this music.”
There's an element of what you might call “soft rock” to this album, as well. I've had the opportunity to play a few of these tunes with Christensen before, and I remember him telling me, when playing “Something Said in Passing,” to go for an “Air Supply vibe.” The Air Supply thing was a joke (though Christensen adds “I don't blush saying that if 'When the Lights Go Down in the City' by Journey comes on, I'm cranking that shit up”). But on this album it's obvious that Christensen is very in touch with the more popular music from his youth. “Slate Icicles on Trees” (the tunes on this album have great names, don't they?) is another example of a tune that easily could be a creative, Bad Plus-style cover of a tune by Tears for Fears.
Throughout it all, melody remains at the forefront. The album wraps up with “Smells Are Awesome,” which is about as comfortable as music in seven can feel, and the very catchy melody again emphasizes one of the album's great strengths, the blend between Wallmann and Miller.
The total result is one of the most joyful albums I've listened to this year – at times playful and fun, at other times intimate and beautiful, but always moving at its own pace. “I really was disciplined to find melodies that, maybe upon waking were fully formed, something that touched me emotionally,” Christensen says. “I have a commitment to myself to never release anything that I can't FEEL something about.”
Dear Friend is available on June 15, 2018 on Shifting Paradigm Records, and can be purchased here. The band will have a CD release show at 8pm on Monday, June 18 at the North Street Cabaret in Madison, Wisconsin.