Russ Johnson Credit: Courtesy the artist

Since trumpeter Russ Johnson moved to Milwaukee in 2011—and thanks to his comfort with the 90-minute commute to Chicago—the local jazz and improvised music scene has been injected with a brash yet thoughtful presence and an aesthetic that connects postbop fundamentals with freedom-seeking impulses. Another benefit has been Johnson’s vast network of collaborators from New York, as quite a few top-notch figures have traveled to the midwest to work with him. But I don’t recall anything equaling the artistic promise of the quartet Johnson debuts here this weekend. New York-based Cuban pianist Aruan Ortiz, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Gerald Cleaver—each a highly individual player and bandleader in his own right—will convene to play a new book of tunes the trumpeter has put together for the combo. Early performances by new bands are always risky propositions, but these players have all worked together in various contexts. In the company of Cleaver and bassist Eric Revis, Ortiz dropped an astonishing trio album last year called Hidden Voices (Intakt), which sprinkles the pianist’s Afro-Cuban roots within a rhythmically tensile attack and a harmonic palette that bridges the knotty phrases of Monk and the freedom of Ornette Coleman. Last month I got to hear Cleaver playing in New York as part of Formanek’s muscular quartet, making ridiculous displacements and time-altering accents. Plus Formanek himself is coming off one of his most sublime accomplishments, a big-band record called The Distance (ECM) that masterfully balances arrangements both lush and brooding while ceding space to some of the city’s most daring improvisers. I can only imagine what they’ll all do with Johnson’s superb writing.   v

Hidden Voices by Aruán Ortiz Trio