Josh Johnson, Freedom Exercise (Northern Spy)
Morgan Guerin, The Saga III (Self-Released)
Review By David R. Adler
Josh Johnson and Morgan Guerin share much in common: they’re both saxophonists whose multi-instrumental skills give their music textural variety and depth, something they’ve highlighted in their work as leaders.
The LA-based Johnson, in addition to alto sax, flute and bass clarinet, plays an array of synths, keyboards, mellotron, sampler and more on his 2020 debut Freedom Exercise. He’s joined by Gregory Uhlmann on guitar, Anna Butterss on electric bass and Aaron Steele on drums and percussion for a spirited all-original set that blurs boundaries between jazz quartet and electronic aesthetics.
Mr. Guerin, a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Atlanta now based in New York, brings a likeminded sensibility to The Saga III, the third in a series of albums he began in 2016. Much like Mr. Johnson, he plays saxophones, flute and bass clarinet, but also keyboards, Moog and Arp synths as well as electric bass, guitar and drums (his first instrument). Unlike Mr. Johnson’s full-band effort, Mr. Guerin’s is more of a one-man affair, although a host of talented guests (drummer JK Kim, guitarist Matthew Stevens, vocalist Débo Ray and more) make significant contributions.
“… they’re both saxophonists whose multi-instrumental skills give their music textural variety and depth, something they’ve highlighted in their work as leaders.”— Jazz Artistry Now
Mr. Johnson and Mr. Guerin come to their respective projects with a range of high-level experience: Mr. Johnson with the likes of Marquis Hill, Jeff Parker’s New Breed, Makaya McCraven and more, Mr. Guerin with Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding, Kassa Overall and Tyshawn Sorey. Their music carries the influences of modern jazz and the avant-garde, hip-hop, neo-soul and electronic music, all coexisting in soundscapes of their own imagining.
Mr. Johnson’s album has a raw, rock-ish edge thanks in part to Uhlmann’s crunchy guitar sound, and distinct hints of Afrobeat from the powerful rhythm section on tunes like “Western Ave.” There’s also an interesting structure to Freedom Exercise as a whole: the even-numbered tracks are somewhat abstract, free-floating or static-groove inventions with an experimental flavor, shorter in length than the more fleshed-out compositions.
Instrumental solos are more prominent on Mr. Johnson’s recording record than on Mr. Guerin’s, making Freedom Exercise a compelling showcase for Mr. Johnson’s sinuous and harmonically advanced alto playing. The Saga III has a more ethereal, dream-like atmosphere where sound, groove and harmonic mystery are the main thing, with saxophone one element among many.
But together, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Guerin display similar tendencies as they engage with the zeitgeist on their own bold terms.
This Jazz Artistry Now PAIRED REVIEW article was written by David R. Adler. Mr. Adler’s work has appeared in JazzTimes, The Village Voice, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly, Down Beat, Time Out New York, City Arts, Jazziz, The New York Times, The New Republic, Slate, The Forward, The Sondheim Review, Fairmont Magazine (Canada), La Tempestad (Mexico), GEO (Germany), New Music Box, All Music Guide, Global Rhythm, Signal to Noise, Coda, Jewish Currents and more. He is happy to be a contributor to Jazz Artistry Now.