Listening to Eddie Johnson play the tenor saxophone gives me the same feeling I get viewing Edvard Munch’s last paintings or touring Frank Lloyd Wright’s beloved Taliesin–that every gesture contains a lifetime of thought and experience. Johnson turned 80 last year, but his music seems ageless. He plays as often as he did two decades ago, and his command of the swing tenor tradition is virtually unflagging. In the swing era, more than in any other period, saxophonists aspired to the tone, inflection, and phrasing of the human voice: they seemed to sing through the horn, mimicking the subtle shadings of a heartbroken murmur or a sly, flirtatious question. Like many of his contemporaries in the late 30s, Johnson turned to what were then the twin founts of jazz saxophone, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, borrowing the former’s robust tone and the latter’s streamlined swing. Unlike most of his running mates, though, Johnson got to play with one of his idols: he worked briefly as a member of Hawkins’s octet in the early 40s, before turning down a gig from Duke Ellington to join Louis Jordan’s famous jump band (he had a new family to support, and Jordan offered more money). Johnson essentially dropped out of music in the 60s and 70s, but in the past quarter century he’s reestablished himself as Chicago’s preeminent swing-style saxist–one of a precious few in the world with a firsthand perspective on the idiom. On ballads, he can make all the emotions of a 40-year romance well up in a single phrase, without so much as a glimmer of schmaltz; even at brisk tempos he plays gorgeously, his sleek lines balancing urbanity with the raw feeling of the blues. Here he’ll front a quintet featuring Ryan Shultz, whose bristly bass trumpet should provide a strong and motile counterpoint to Johnson’s tenor. Saturday, August 25, 9:30 PM, Andy’s, 11 E. Hubbard; 312-642-6805.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lee Konitz.