December Artist Feature: Bassist Max Johnson

(photo by Scott Friedlander)

Max Johnson is one of the most active young bassists on the Brooklyn scene. He has played in a number of different genres with a great number of musicians and at the age of just 24, he has already released five records under his own name. In 2014 alone, he released the second record by his trio, one from his project The Prisoner, and a third as co-leader of the band Big Eyed Rabbit.

Later this month, Johnson has a three-day residency at Ibeam, where he will be unveiling music for his third trio record to be recorded and released in 2015. The band features cornestist Kirk Knuffke and drummer Ziv Ravitz. Each night of the residency will also feature guest appearances by other artists.

Residency Schedule

December 18 (Thursday)

8:30 pm: Max Johnson Trio

10 pm: Max Johnson Trio with Ben Goldberg (clarinet)

December 19 (Friday)

8:30 pm: Max Johnson Trio

10 pm: Max Johnson Trio with Steve Swell (trombone)

December 20 (Saturday)

8:30 pm: Max Johnson Trio

10 pm: Max Johnson Trio with John O’Gallagher (alto sax) and Ingrid Laubrock (tenor sax)

Johnson will also be performing on December 26 at the Stone with the band Sadhana, which includes Vincent Chancey (French horn) and Jeremy Carlstedt (drums) as part of the Will Connell tribute week.

Interview with Max Johnson

Cisco Bradley: What was your vision when you began writing the new book of music for your trio?

Max Johnson: I wouldn’t categorize it as a vision, or even much of a thought.  My idea with the trio was always to have simple music that is clear in it’s intention, and leave a lot of room for us to be super loose with it.  So this collection of pieces are from over the past year, where I would think of an idea, and write it down as a piece for the trio.  And I’m only now collecting all of them together, and over the course of the residency, we’ll get to really dive into everything and explore what we can do with it.

CB: What specific reasons did you have for inviting each of the special guests to play with your trio during your residency?

MJ: I did a residency at Ibeam a little over 2 years ago with Weasel Walter where we had different special guests every night, and I really like the idea of having something that’s constant, and then throwing in different ingredients to shake things up.  I wrote a set of music for the trio + 2 saxophones, played by Michael Attias and Ingrid Laubrock, which we’ve played twice so far (although I have more music prepared this time around), and that’s the instrumentation for the 20th (with the addition of the wonderful John O’Gallagher, as Michael is out of the country).  I only recently met and played with Ben Goldberg, having been a fan of his for some years, and I thought that his sound and aesthetic would work incredibly well with the trio, so I asked him.  Steve Swell is one my favorite musicians, period, and one of the first people I started playing with in New York.  He’s actually sat in with the trio once before about 2 years ago, and so I invited him to play again, adding his unique sound to the group.

CB: It’s impressive that you are getting ready to release a third album with your trio in such a short amount of time. What can you say about how much the band has progressed since its formation?

MJ: I don’t know about impressive, it may be more eager or crazy, but I feel that the more the band plays, the deeper we get into our “thing”.  Which would be hard for me to describe, but there’s something there that always feels really great, and since we recorded the last album in the spring of 2013, we’ve moved even further in that direction.  I put this specific band together to really have a group that could be super dynamic, acoustic and be able to do anything, and it really just gets better every time we play.  I really love playing with Kirk and Ziv, and this record will definitely be a step up from the last.

CB: How would you describe the aesthetic of the trio?

MJ: That’s a difficult thing to explain in words. There’s something very clear when we’re playing, or clear to me when I think about the band, but I don’t know how to describe it.  It could be that we’re trying to say the most with the least amount of moves.  There’s a deepening simplicity in the group, and the more we play, we cut out all the extra stuff so that we can be really loose and free with the music.

CB: Can you talk about the inspiration and ideas behind some of your new compositions?

MJ: Sure, although it’s certainly not super clear to me this time around.  In the past I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from specific sources (film, books, etc), but this time the tunes have been coming from all over.  And while, stylistically, the new music is similar in essence to the past trio tunes, the inspiration is less clear to me.  Also, seeing as I wrote most of these tunes over the last year, some of the “older” ones I even forgot that I wrote, so it’s hard to remember where the idea popped up.  The only thing I’ve noticed is that the music I’ve been writing for the trio + 2 has been my most intricate yet.  I don’t know why, but I just seem to want to write for them in that way.

CB: What other projects and performances do you have on the horizon?

MJ: I’ll be taking part in the tribute week for Will Connell at the Stone later this month.  Will was one of the first people I played with in New York, and he was genuinely the nicest person I’ve met.  I had the opportunity to play in his band, Sadhana, with Vincent Chancey and Jeremy Carlstedt for the past 4 years, and we will be playing on December 26th at the Stone, paying tribute to Will’s life and music.  After that I’ll be in California in January playing some shows with Ross Hammond, Alex Cline, Vinny Golia, Darren Johnston, Jordan Glenn, Alissa Rose and other wonderful folks.  I also have two recordings in the can that should be coming out next year (fingers crossed).  The first is a collaborative improvised record with Perry Robinson, Diane Moser and myself, and the second is the debut record of my Silver Quartet, with Kris Davis, Susan Alcorn and Mike Pride, which is all original music, plus my arrangement of Ennio Moricone’s music from “Once Upon a Time in the West”.  Other than that, I have a bunch more gigs, recordings and tours coming next year, and look forward to seeing what else happens!

Selected Discography

  • Max Johnson Trio – The Invisible Trio (Fresh Sound, 2014)
  • Max Johnson – The Prisoner (No Business, 2014)
  • Big Eyed Rabbit – self-titled (Not Two, 2014)
  • Max Johnson Trio – Elevated Vegetation (FMR, 2012)
  • Max Johnson Quartet – self-titled (Not Two, 2012)