Russ Johnson is a cutting-edge trumpeter whose thoughtful approach to music makes him a distinguished composer and instrumentalist. After spending 23 years in New York, Johnson relocated to Chicago, the city that also shelters the remaining members of the Headlands Quartet: pianist/keyboardist Rob Clearfield, bassist Matt Ulery, and drummer Jon Deitemyer.
Johnson had distanced himself from the mainstream long since, and his two previous releases, Meeting Point (build with a different Chicagoan quartet) and Still Out To Lunch (mostly composed of exciting takes on Eric Dolphy’s tunes) drew effusive reactions from the media. His fourth CD as a leader, Headlands, consists of a 12-movement suite and is predestined to attain the same success as it reflects the improvisational tendencies of the performers allied to a tight interplay. The music was captured live at the Hungry Brain in Chicago.
The title track initiates and also wraps up the program, carrying a cool groove with a methodical posture. The shorter opener leads directly to “Serpent Kane”, which, brimming with sinuous trumpet melody and clever rhythmic accentuations, has its flow disrupted with keyboard interjections. Clearfield sets off for his own world of improvised inspiration, having a bass pedal as support. Johnson follows him, boasting a facile articulation that many trumpet players would like to have.
Four solo transitions, one for each musician, serve as introductions for longer numbers. Johnson blows his horn with authenticity as he takes us to a special place: “Fjord”, whose idyllic nature easily brings tranquil landscapes to mind. The melody is simply beautiful and the comping, expressed with reserve and resolution, does it justice. Before the theme is reinstalled, Deitemyer shines, filling a vamp with brushed chops and cross-rhythms. With a similar inclination to serenity, “Kapoj” feels a bit more static due to the imposed circular harmonization and tenuous melodic observations. The intensity is heightened in a bubbling reaction that occurs in the last minutes.
The antithesis of the above may be observed on pieces like “Mons Calpe” and “Wallenpeitshen”. The latter is based on a vainglorious vamp that shoulders a Spanish-like melodicism, while the former carries a funky routine with playful melodic manifestations that are reminiscent of works by Dave Douglas and Andrew Hill.
The drummer clearly brings up the odd-metered “Isthmus” in his introductory solo effort. The confined energy of the piece is gradually liberated with intention and sleek tempo variations.
Ceaselessly seeking the lyrical in his advanced musical conception, Johnson carefully structured the suite to interpolate personal statements in the cohesive ensemble practices. Headlands is a winning work.