Describing himself as "your friendly, vintage, be-bop trombonist," J.J. Johnson brought his quintet to Blues Alley Tuesday night for a rare visit. It's a shame the group didn't stay longer.
There was a cleanness of line and an unwavering attention to tone evident in every tune performed by Johnson, who was joined by a top-drawer band: pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Rufus Reid, drummer Victor Lewis and newcomer Tom Gulliom on saxophones and flute. One tune, in particular, an interpolation of "When the Saints Go Marching In," seemed to encapsulate Johnson's contribution to the jazz trombone, as it moved from the familiar theme into more challenging harmonic territory.
For all his innovations as an instrumentalist, though, not enough attention is paid to Johnson's strengths as an arranger. With its striking harmonies and moody textures, his version of Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti" was a thing of beauty, and in a more playful vein Johnson carried on a delightfully intimate conversational duet with Reid on "Bud's Blues." Ever the gentleman, Johnson also generously showcased his bandmates. The veterans played with typical fire and assurance, and Gulliom brought a big smile to Johnson's face with his brash but not untidy rendition of Charlie Parker's "Constellation."