[image by Scott Meyers Photography via MySpace]
Kansas Citian Joe Johnson has carved out an impressive musical identity for himself as a bassist, composer, arranger and entrepreneur, working in jazz, classical, country and Christian pop – and for the circus. The winner of the 2009 Thelonious Monk Institute’s Composers’ Competition, Johnson has performed with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Kurt Rosenwinkel, among other notable musicians.
A former high school acquaintance of mine, I had the opportunity to catch up with Joe recently to talk about his $10,000 tune, “Shepherd Song,” composing, hanging, his sound-design business and also remind him of his roots as a man, in his own words, “from the land of the BBQ stands.”
[The following interview took place over e-mail. Edited for length & clarity.]
RP: The last time I heard you perform, it was 2001 and you were playing in a power trio at Rockhurst High School’s annual Battle of the Bands in Kansas City, MO. If I recall correctly, you guys were really into prog-rock, but I remember you performed Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” solo. You tapped the entire tune.
JJ: That’s correct – it was with Miles Turney (guitar) and Don McCann (drums). We formed a prog-rock band that covered Dream Theater/Liquid Tension Experiment, Rush, Steve Vai, etc. We each had a solo spot and I had worked out something with the Linus and Lucy theme played with both hands on electric bass. I need to check that out again…I’ve sort of forgotten about it and not kept up that skill.
I remember the judges were kind of freaked out that we were playing that music in high school. It was easy to practice while at Rockhurst [because there were no girls] and no one really played music so it made me unique, which I liked. But I was already obsessed with practicing before I got there.
RP: Now, most recently you took the prize in the 2009 Thelonious Monk Institute Songwriting Competition with your composition “Shepherd Song.” You had the opportunity to perform it live with some heavy-hitters: Nicholas Payton, Joe Lovano, Geoff Keezer and Carl Allen. That must have been pretty amazing.
JJ: Very amazing. Originally they were worried about me winning the prize because I had just graduated from their college program…they didn’t want it to look like I won because I was a part of their “family,” but there were a ton of great entries from outside the Monk Institute. One of their issues was what deciding what band would back me up, because [traditionally] it would be the new college class from which I had recently graduated. They thought it would look weird, so they told me I got to play with Nicholas Payton, Joe Lovano, Geoff Keezer and Carl Allen. I had no complaints!
I had already had some face time with Nick Payton, but the rest of the band was new to me. They are world class. I was most nervous during the rehearsal for the piece – I think that caused me to lead the band poorly but at the performance, it was easier to take the reigns. I wish the performance was more polished, but there are some really beautiful moments on that live recording.
I think the coolest part was the hang backstage. Herbie, Wayne Shorter, Nick Payton, Ron Carter, McCoy Tyner…the list of these guys is endless and they were all hanging out. It was nuts.
RP: The final judging panel at the competition that year included Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, Robert Hurst, Christian McBride and John Patitucci. Talk about pressure.
JJ: Those judges were for the performance competition and I won the composers’ competition. The pressure on me at that time was not very great, because when I showed up to the rehearsal, I had already won.
However, backstage, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard, lots of my peers who are much more talented than I, and [Bruce Lundvall] the CEO of Blue Note (to name a few) were watching and listening. Then there were the guys that you were on the bandstand with…now you talk about the pressure. Honestly, I didn’t even think about it. I had won $10,000 and they couldn’t take it away if it sucked…so, off we go!
The opening to the piece is challenging so it felt a little like being naked…but I had mentally prepared for the moment for about a month…going through a practice routine, imagining the performance. When I warmed up, I just had to stay focused on that routine and trust that it would work. It did.
RP: Was this your first time entering an original work in the competition?
JJ: Yes. I had entered a collection of works to win the Rome Prize but it was not diverse or “mature” enough (i.e works for strings, symphonic works, lots of CDs, etc). This was the first “song” competition that I’ve tried. It turned out well!
I had a feeling I was going to win. I put a lot of things into the piece that I bet other jazz composers were not going to do. It is really arranged…not just a tune. I think that really got to the judges. Also, I wanted the piece to be easy to listen to even though it requires skill to execute.
RP: What was your inspiration behind the piece?
JJ: The tune came to me while I was on a seven-day silent retreat with the Jesuits in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. The retreat involves a lot of time in prayer and one or two meetings every day with your spiritual director.
The theme of God as shepherd kept coming up everywhere. It was quite comforting because there was a lot of change going on in my life. I had just finished the Thelonious Monk Institute and had moved to NY with no job, and I wanted to take a break from playing.
I was sort of in no man’s land…great time for a retreat. Anyway, I was in the novitiate chapel (where young jesuits attend mass) around midnight or 1:00 am and I sat down at their keyboard. The tune was initially an improvisation on my feelings towards God at the moment.
Later that summer I was asked to attend The Steans Institute for Young Artist at Ravinia in Chicago. I had a great band to play with there as well and I thought, “heck, let me finish this tune for the band.” It took about a day and a 1/2 to write the interlude and solo sections. I had the introduction floating around in my head for a week or two.
One night, I stayed up till about 6 am finishing the parts and had it played. It came off okay but some things did not flow like I wanted. The version that won was slightly edited from what I wrote at Ravinia.
RP: What are you listening to these days?
JJ: Well, I’ve been listening to everything I can. I play bass in the Ringling Bros. Circus so anything that isn’t circus music is great! Some highlights for me: LOTS of Thelonious Monk. I’m sort of obsessed. Wayne Shorter Quartet (also an obsession), Arts the Beatdoctor, Kurt Rosenwinkel, James Brown, Lady Gaga, some Gregorian chant, Mark Turner…
I’ve just checked out this Duke Ellington/John Coltrane record – awesome stuff, because Trane doesn’t change how he plays because of Duke. He is himself. It’s very inspiring for a young musician.
RP: The circus? How’d you land that gig?
JJ: I was sitting at my apartment in New Jersey when my friend Jason Levi called me. We played in the UNT [University of North Texas] One O’Clock Lab Band together and he had recently subbed in the circus for three months. The bassist was quitting and the bandleader was looking for a new guy. I happened to be called and I really wanted to quit my day job. But the circus is a great experience. I highly recommend it to any musician.
RP: You’ve worked in other genres too: composing classical double bass duets, recording with a Christian pop band, arranging for the [University of] North Texas jazz band, and touring with country legend Ray Price. Talk about moving between these environments.
JJ: Well, they are all very different, but there are some common threads. I feel like playing the circus has helped me learn SO much about how the bass functions in a band. We play a lot of shows so I use every show to learn something new. Focus, listening, consistency, time, sound…these are all things that every gig requires. It can get detailed too: certain things a bassist does can control a whole band…what is that? How do I perfect it? Does my sound production play a part? etc. etc.
The main difference between these gigs is the hang and how people treat each other/situation. I don’t have many complaints about any of them…there is always something to learn.
RP: Speaking of hangs, I read your blog post about Marchel Ivery, with whom you used to gig in Dallas. You talked about hearing his stories, laughing and learning lessons. That’s a big thing in the musician’s community, particularly jazz – the “hang.”
JJ: The hang is everything. It is where you learn everything about the music and how you get gigs. So many stories are shared when you hang out…it’s really really essential.
RP: Do you have any plans to record soon?
JJ: I recently feel like I should. I was listening to one of the circus shows and I had some inspiration for a record. I felt “yeah, I have something to say.” So it’s about time to get something onto tape.
I have a bunch of ideas and songs but I’m unsure if they all belong on the same record. At the same time, I don’t really care. I am diverse and have lots of ideas. Why shouldn’t the CD reflect that?
RP: What’s your writing process like?
JJ: It depends. Lately, I’ve just been collecting random ideas and recording them. Sadly, I can’t remember how to play them when I listen back a week or a month later…so I have to figure it out. Sometimes I just write like a madman. I will always give myself a goal when I decide to write something, for example, “I will get THIS much done today.” That way you have a feeling of accomplishment and you have something to edit, a direction you’re already going in, not just a bunch of relative indecision, though that would seem romantic to lots of artists.
Most all good writers I know write a lot. Terence Blanchard made me do that at the Thelonious Monk Institute and I’m so happy he did. There were some long nights of writing. But it taught me to not hold on to everything I write too tightly. I think young writers are scared to let go, fearing that they will never get close to it again. It is actually the opposite. You get closer to your identity and when you write something that really reflects that, you become very close to it. You also evolve as a composer faster.
[Johnson performs "Just Friends" with the Monk Institute Class of 2009]
RP: Tell me about FNH. What sort of projects are you working on?
JJ: FNH is my company for sound design and music. I create sound effects and soundtracks for TV, film, animation, and web. Currently, I have some REALLY exciting stuff that I can’t talk about, but it is pretty huge. I’m also working on some websites, some bumpers for a friend’s music blog, a video for TV as well.
This business really appeals to my producer side. I have complete control and it’s all up to me. I used to listen to records and listen to why things works, why it made me feel a certain way. This is a great outlet for that…and the money is great too. I basically taught myself how to do it.
However, I owe Mitch Paone my first born child for getting me started and into the industry. Seriously…my first-born-child.
RP: It’s no doubt you’re keeping busy and trying out a lot of different things. What sort of advice do you have for other young musicians who are considering a career in music (particularly jazz), whether in performance, business, or another aspect of the industry?
JJ: Diversify. I see very few jazz musicians with a large variety of interests – or if they do, I never see them pursue it. They are pretty one-sided most of the time and it sounds like it from the audience perspective. Lots of ego and trying to prove something or get “known” and establish a name.
Granted, there are those jazz musicians that “love” Bjork and Radiohead but that is gimmicky these days (I do like both Bjork and Radiohead) and it rarely goes beyond that. Because jazz is such an intimate art, it derives its power from the artists – themselves.
The artist is made up of his experiences and desires among other things. Expanding your experience and desires will deepen your art. The deeper it gets, the more you will naturally play from your experience. I’m talking about diversity of loving fine art, wine, dancing, cars, exercise, prayer, pop music, etc, etc. Most importantly with all that is to never leave anything behind when you’re on the bandstand.
Bring everything of yourself with you and leave nothing when you get off the bandstand. Take your whole life and all of its influences in EVERY facet and use it all – not at once – to form your musical identity.
RP: Do you miss Kansas City BBQ?
JJ: Like the desert misses the rain. I accidentally cut my finger a few days ago and my blood was Gates BBQ sauce…just sayin’.
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To hear “Shepherd Song,” click here. Additional audio streams available over at myspace.com/joejohnsonbass. Clips of Joe’s work with FNH can be found at fnhny.com.
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