Max Johnson: Hermit Music (Album Review)


When the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined modern life, working musicians had their own ways of working during their downtime. Some took the time to revisit abandoned projects, while others started brand new ideas from scratch. Some have attempted social distancing recording sessions while others have embraced home recording. Some have channeled COVID-related anxieties into their music, while others have treated their music as a form of escapism. The nature of everyone’s efforts varied because it was a time of great uncertainty. How much longer would the virus spread? Will there be a change of leadership/government? If so, will this change the course of the virus? Uncertainty was the only certainty.

For modern jazz bassist Max Johnson, this uncertainty produced anxiety instead of opportunity. “While watching musicians talk about how great it was to take time off or how productive they were, I struggled to get out of bed each day and struggled to put on my usual positive face. .” Inertia can catch some artists off guard. Johnson was planning to record a solo bass music album in the spring of 2020, but we all know what happened around that time. hermit musicthe album you see here is not really that album. hermit music is the product of creative struggles in the face of a dismal world.

If Johnson had had the opportunity to step into a studio before quarantine, we would have had a very different album on our hands. “What you hear on this record is a different bassist, improviser and person than you would have heard two years ago,” he admits. Just how different that album would have been, we’ll probably never know. One thing we do know is that Hermit Music is a very harrowing little collection of music. Johnson released two albums earlier in 2020, but they are from pre-pandemic sessions. With all due respect to both of them, they don’t prepare you for what awaits you here.

Everything on hermit music is spontaneous. To hear Johnson say it, these five compositions are improvisation in its purest form. The engineer just pressed the record button and Johnson attacked the bass. Considering there are only two conventional ways to invoke a double bass, pizzicato, or bow note, Johnson can create a wide variety of strange noises from his instrument. sound orbit and Sketches from earlier this year explored the post-bop terrain with great agility, but hermit music could be the soundtrack to Charles Mingus’ mental breakdown in the mid-60s.

The opening title track is one of the less unsettling numbers, giving Johnson almost seven minutes to stretch her left hand as she leaps up and down the board, drawing all of the individual notes from hiding. Dynamic extremes are tested, letting the bass go quiet or rumble in a bowling alley. It’s on the aptly titled “Ghost Whistle” when things get a little weird. Using his bow, Johnson does everything from getting pitches high enough to disturb the dogs to scrolling twin melodies around the ladder a step away. The bow even becomes a rhythm catalyst at one point, producing a precise syncopation that would honestly confuse most professional bassists. “Recording this music was very difficult for me,” Johnson explains, “and [it] created a number of mental and emotional challenges that I hadn’t anticipated. But when he draws his bow to pull off something like that, you hear prowess. Whatever the challenges, they were worth it.

When “Haystacks” starts, it sounds like a continuation of “Ghost Whistle”. Here Johnson returns to soft strokes to snatch, stirring discordant clusters that are too harmonically taut to settle fully, as the rubato tempo suggests. “Glass Lungs” throws everything into the pot; Oddities with the bow, plucked passages, sometimes both at the same time. His instrument stops sounding like a bass halfway through when it begins to take on eerily disembodied hoarse howls.

The concluding track, “Woodmere”, a track dedicated to luthier Ed Maday, sounds as if Johnson’s needle had hit ‘E’, but he kept moving forward. “Woodmere” plays as a continuous phrase that keeps finding new subjects and predicates but hesitates to wrap up thought. Even at the end, the music is dragged to the finish line through Johnson’s use of the bow. It is both exhilarating and scary. Knowing that the recording of this music caused Johnson some discomfort, the listener is as likely to wince in response to the brutality as to wake up to new sounds. If that’s what it means to suffer for his art, then Johnson’s art speaks for itself. Hopefully, now that all that catharsis is out of his system, he can go about his business as usual, albeit sadder and wiser.


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