Max Johnson: Sketches

Bassist leads trio including Karl Berger in music that while posited on harmonic and formal abstraction, swings strongly when it feels like it


No indication why it’s taken six years for this trio recording to be released but reasons a-plenty for welcoming it. New York bassist Max Johnson’s career so far has been as productively busy as his intricate solos in the company of pianist-vibraphonist Karl Berger and drummer Billy Mintz.

The Johnson bass style owes something to his namesake Marc, though it’s on Charlie Haden’s Ginger Blues that he leads off before heralding Berger’s probing improvisation on piano against a straight four-to-the-bar and hi-hat. Deceleration leads to Johnson ending on a repeated phrase with late addition of vibes.

Piano and bass inaugurate a conversation for Berger’s Presently, soon giving Mintz the chance to offer bystander comment. The chart begins to swing conventionally, with Berger maintaining personal utterance and dictating the point at which Johnson plays a terrific skedaddling solo before all ends non-committally.

It might seem from the foregoing that swing’s a temptation that the trio couldn’t resist. It’s there full frontal on Mintz’s Flight, a quick number on which Berger’s vibes follows his personal harmonic take on things and the musician himself offers one Hamptonesque whoop. There’s a faux-tripartite trade with Mintz before the drummer is released for a solo in which the original tempo is backgrounded. But to swing or not to swing is not an inflexible choice for these musicians; it might beckon but they follow when they feel like it.

The calypso-like Black Eyed Suzie separates the louring tread of the bass in Debt and its continuation in the eponymous Sketches, where the exchange between piano and bass turns melodically plaintive.

Sketches the album is a classic trio format notable for the relaxation shared among its participants.

Why The Moon Is Blue; Presently; Ginger Blues; Flight; Debt; Black Eyed Suzie; Sketches (45.16)
Karl Berger (p, vib); Max Johnson (b); Billy Mintz (d). New Jersey, 15 January 2017.
Fresh Sound Records FSR-CD 5120