Calvin Johnson Jr., Jewel’s Lullaby (Alma Records)

Calvin Johnson Jr., Jewel's Lullaby, album cover

On debut albums, it makes sense for young jazz musicians to introduce themselves by playing material penned by the masters. That way, listeners immediately have something to grasp and can also get the feel and tone of the artist. Leading his quartet, saxophonist Calvin Johnson wisely opens with Miles Davis’ “So Near, So Far” setting the mellow mood of “Jewel’s Lullaby.” That’s the case until Johnson fires the tune up with energy.

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Johnson’s warm horn returns to a restful place on pianist Tad Dameron’s beautiful “If You Could See Me Now.” This musically empathetic ensemble of talented artists—Johnson, drummer Joe Dyson, pianist Courtney Bryan and bassist Nathan Lamberson—are notably all New Orleans natives and alumni of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA). Not incidentally, Johnson is the grandson of reedman and Grunewald School of Music educator George “Son” Johnson Sr. and the nephew of saxophonist/clarinetist Ralph Johnson.

Bassist Lamberson is given the go on “Not Quite Enough,” the first of two numbers penned by Johnson. It swings in an old school way that fits nicely in the program. More adventurous is the leader’s title cut, “Jewel’s Lullaby. Following the gentle, single notes from pianist Bryan and a dreamy statement of the melody, Johnson and Dyson take the tune to exciting heights. In other words, they don’t just rock the cradle, they wake the baby with enthusiasm.

Johnson, who’s been heard regularly in both modern and classic jazz settings, displays his traditional leanings on his own arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” He takes this hymn on alone with his saxophone harmonizing with itself through the use of over-dubbing. It becomes the soft goodnight of “Jewel’s Lullaby,” an album that promises many good nights of jazz to come.

  • NYStateOfMind

    This is album is lush and intense, loyal to the masters but original in its own rite. Johnson’s take on “So Near, So Far” is my favorite. Its energy is tangible, and the melodies transcend any expectations I have of what contemporary jazz is supposed to be in 2013. Brava for respectful and carefully calculated musical innovation.