Max Johnson Quartet | The Prisoner | No Business Records

Ingrid Laubrock – tenor sax | Mat Maneri – viola | Max Johnson – bass | Tomas Fujiwara – drums

Tracklist: 1. No.6 Arrival / No.58 Orange Alert 11’02” 2. X04 6’11” 3. No.12 Schitzoid Man (Gemini) 4’49” 4. No.24 Hammer into Anvil 10’34” 5. No.48 Living in Harmony 10′ 46″ 6. The New Number 2 7’33” 7. No.2 Once Upon a Time / No.1 Fallout 14’02”

All compositions by Max Johnson (Max Johnson Music ASCAP). Recorded 20th December, 2012 by Tom Tedesco at Tedesco Studios, Paramus, NJ. Mixed by Eivind Opsvik at Greenwood Underground, Brooklyn, NY. Mastered by Tim Cramer at Cramersound, New York, NY. Design by Oskaras Anosovas. Produced by Max Johnson. Executive Producer – Danas Mikailionis. Co-producer – Valerij Anosov. Partners: Jazz à Luz Festival, Toulouse II University, Jazz à Poitiers

The Prisoner

is a suite of music inspired by the 1968 television show starring Patrick McGoohan. I first watched the show when I was about twelve years old, and really enjoyed it, but I was a weird kid who was into 60s British TV. In 2011, I decided to watch the series again, and was instantly and totally inspired by the timeless and forward looking nature of the program. After re-watching the series, I went immediately to the manuscript paper and started sketching some musical ideas based on concepts, plot points, characters, events and the mood of the show. Some of these ideas were finished quickly, some remained just concepts and sketches for months before I figured out how to make them work.

I decided to take the four or five finished pieces and perform them in March of 2012. I had played with Ingrid Laubrock and Tomas Fujiwara a few times informally, and asked the both of them to participate. I had really wanted another voice, and had initially thought of calling a trumpet player for the gig, but when I played with Mat Maneri for the first time that February, I knew that he’d be the perfect player for the project. I fleshed out about five of the pieces and we played our first gig at the Clemente Soto Velez in Manhattan. Russ Johnson, a fantastic artist (and my uncle), decided to make five pieces of art for the concert, and displayed them around the gallery as we performed. That artwork was the inspiration for the design of this disk.

We performed again in June and September of 2012. Each time I fleshed out another of the concepts, and edited the ones we’d already played. By December 2012, I had rearranged and organized the suite, and we recorded it at Tedesco Studios. I’m very proud of the music on this disk. It is meant to be listened to as one long suite. I’m not much of a conceptualist, but I think the music on this disk exceeds what I had originally planned, and really conveys everything that I had hoped to get across. I hope you enjoy the music, and if you haven’t yet seen “The Prisoner”, I highly recommend that as well. — Max Johnson


Bassist Max Johnson

has been building up quite an impressive resume as both a leader and a sideman for a variety of labels. His second release of this year is a collaborative effort with Ingrid Laubrock on tenor saxophone, Mat Maneri on viola and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. You might think that this unit could blow up quite a storm, and indeed they do on a few sections of the recording, but most of the music is given over to slow and atmospheric improvisations. The group shows quite a bit of cohesion and self control in the building of their music, and Maneri’s subtle and patient bowing meshes very well with Ingrid Laubrock who is quite comfortable at low volume and long narrow bands of sound. This is an interesting album, definitely worth picking up if you are interested in patient and slowly developing music that envelops you in a sense of unease. It is all the more powerful when the band really lets loose on more feverish improvisational sections, coming as a shock and keeping the listener on their toes throughout the album, developing the sound of surprise and not knowing what might be around the next corner. — Tim Niland




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5 thoughts on “Max Johnson Quartet | The Prisoner | No Business Records

  1. Bassist-composer Max Johnson is on the move. The latest album features compositions inspired by the 1968 British TV show that got Max’s attention as a youngster and continues to give him inspiration today. The result is the CD The Prisoner (No Business NBCD 66). It’s seven movements that comprise a sort of suite, played freely by a well-matched quartet of Max on bass, Ingrid Laubrock on tenor sax, Mat Maneri on viola and Thomas Fujiwara on drums.

    This is a moody sort of free-composed jazz that matches the labyrinthian unfolding of the tv series. What that means is that there is space for everybody throughout within the compositional frameworks. Ingrid sounds impressive on tenor, Mat and Max form a two-member string section at times which adds to the sound, and they both solo with smarts. Thomas has an acute set of ears and responds with swing and out feels that help define the music but also show us a drummer who has it!

    It’s the sort of album you need to listen to a few times to totally grok because it’s subtle as well as compelling.

    Here is a quartet to hear! I hope they can get together some more because they have a unique chemistry.

    Kudos to Max and everybody! This is serious and moving fare.

  2. I’ve never watched The Prisoner, the 1967-68 British TV series that starred Patrick McGoohan as a secret agent help captive by a mysterious organization, but I know it has reached iconic status over the years. Bassist Max Johnson, who recently released the excellent The Invisible Trio, has composed a tribute to the series that plays as an extended suite.

    It begins slowly, almost hesitantly, as if in a fog, with long tones from the bass and viola. Then Ingrid Laubrock sounds a siren, or perhaps a clarion call, and the first theme of the album emerges.

    The rest of The Prisoner alternates between composed and improvised sections, but even in the freer passages there’s always something anchoring the music – a rhythm, a bass line, a repeating figure – that provides some structure but doesn’t sacrifice the feeling that the musicians generate. There are some exciting passages where free-form explorations suddenly transition into theme statements with a swinging pulse, and then take a right turn in another direction. You never know what’s coming next, which from what little I know of the plot of the show is probably what is intended.

    This is a record that you can listen to one or twice and enjoy, but as you dig deeper more layers reveal themselves. Johnson constructs some interesting textures with just four instruments, and as you might expect everyone is stellar. Ingrid Laubrock can wax lyrically, reminding me of Mark Turner in spots, and then go totally abstract, utilizing extended techniques. Mat Maneri might be the most immediately recognizable string player around, and he and Johnson create a dense thicket of sound, possibly mirroring the confusion and uncertainty that plagued McGoohan’s character Number 6. Tomas Fujiwara has never been better, accenting the music perfectly and providing plenty of drive.

    As I listen to The Prisoner, I get the feeling that the music is programmatic, tracking certain developments in the plot that I wish I knew. That’s one indication that The Prisoner is a success; the other is that the music stands on its own as a fascinating glimpse into the musical mind of one Max Johnson.

  3. Ever since it wrapped in 1968, the cult British TV series The Prisoner has been an inspiration to artists in every medium. Its story, which involved the efforts of an unnamed secret agent played by co-creator Patrick McGoohan to escape a mysterious island where he’d been exiled after resigning from his intelligence agency, has been retold in spinoffs and remakes on television, movies, comic books, theater, and most especially, music. It’s easy to see why—the show was decades ahead of its time, bearing many of the hallmarks of what we identify as “quality” television long before such things were common, and its cryptic storylines, charismatic characters, and theme of rebellion against authorities, have a clear appeal for artists of all stripes. Amongst the names that have been inspired to set its themes to music are Iron Maiden, XTC, Roy Harper, the Clash, Dr. Feelgood, Supergrass, and Michael Penn. (Herbie Hancock‘s album The Prisoner, despite being released in 1969, was not inspired by the series.)

    The latest to take a crack at it is bassist Max Johnson, a veteran of the New York improv scene who has assembled a quartet to tackle his own interpretation of the themes and ideas behind The Prisoner in an extended suite. (Buy it on Bandcamp.) The biggest name in the quartet may be sax player Ingrid Laubrock, here wielding a tenor; Mat Maneri, on viola, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums complete the outfit. They’ve been rehearsing and touring The Prisoner at various free music venues around the U.S. and Europe for almost a year now, and now they’re ready to release it as a standalone recording on tiny Lithuanian label NoBusiness Records.

    As in the series, where no characters are given names to protect their former identities, the tracks here are generally identified only by number. The opener, “No. 6: Arrival/No. 58: Orange Alert,” is named after the show’s electrifying and compelling first episode. It begins in near-silence, with scuffling percussion and stretched-out bass work from the rhythm section laying down a foundation for Laubrock’s ethereal sax and Maneri’s minimal viola. Unlike the episode from which it takes its name, it lacks tension; it builds and rolls, but never explodes. Its second half is more satisfying, with a siren-like blast from Laubrock launching the group into a more cooperative and less moody venture.

    “X04” shows that Johnson’s quartet is capable of swinging, with some bluesy bass work from the man himself segueing into a more avant-garde exercise as it develops. Next up is “No. 12: Schizoid Man/Gemini” (named for an episode when the protagonist, Number Six, is replaced by a savage doppelganger to weaken his sense of self). The music nicely reflects its theme, with Maneri’s viola finally getting to carry a number that begins with a creepy horror-movie tone and evolves into something much more mysterious. These are the two shortest tracks on the album, but they’re also two of the most effective, delivering on their intentions without overstaying their welcome.

    One of the most brutal and powerful episodes of the series lends its name to “No. 24: Hammer Into Anvil,” which begins with an insistent, alarm-like bird call from Laubrock’s sax, shifting into scratching and straining tones from the viola doubling up and playing off it, before coming to an explosive end in its last few minutes. It’s a powerful set-up with an effective payoff, and a model that should have been used previously on the album, which often takes a bit too long to go nowhere special.

    Based on a curious Western-themed episode, “Living in Harmony” reverts back to some of the suite’s earlier missteps, taking its time to give play to some repetitive improvisation that, unfortunately, doesn’t have much of a payoff. There’s stuff to like here, especially the interplay between Laubrock and Fujiwara about midway through the track, but it’s little reward for the investment.

    “The New Number 2” is a shorter piece, still taking its time to develop, but featuring more to like along the way, including some lovely, moody sax that develops, by the end, into some of Laubrock’s most memorable playing on the album. The closer, “No. 2: Once Upon a Time/No. 1: Fallout,” is the longest track on the record and its showpiece in many ways. Like the series, it closes out with a two-part finale that’s very different in mood and intention; part one begins loping and slow before erupting into a chaos of strings grounded by Johnson’s best bass playing of the entire piece, while part two starts in a whirl and evolves into something almost like a funeral march.

    Taking The Prisoner (the album) as a product of its inspiration is probably a recipe for frustration; the show meant different things to different people, of course, and it would have been dull if Johnson and crew had just offered a reinterpretation of the theme music (originally written by British TV legend Ron Grainier, who also penned the scores for Steptoe and Son and Doctor Who). Like the series, Johnson’s album varies from moment to moment, sometimes hypnotic and sometimes formulaic; and like the series, it’s not always what you expect—some of these tracks play quite differently live than they do in the cold air of the studio. It’s not entirely satisfying, but it’s fascinating to listen to—and, after all, the show didn’t give us all the answers either.

  4. Double bassist Max Johnson’s new suite The Prisoner is inspired by the futuristic British cult TV series from the end of the sixties by the same name. This series was a source of inspiration for many artists, among them The Clash, Iron Maiden, and avant-garde sound artist David Shea. New York-based Johnson assembled a quartet of like-minded improvisers—tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, viola player Mat Maneri, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, all in powerful performances—for an updated sonic meditation on the themes of the series. The seven pieces refer to characters in the series, all called by numbers, and situations from the series episodes.

    The chamber, melancholic spirit of the music and its loose interplay charge it with the claustrophobic, mysterious feeling of the original series. Though the pieces are composed and Johnson stressed a thematic progression, there is a lot of freedom for each musician to push its own course. This kind of openness colors the music in conflictual dynamics, emphasizes the tension and the stress of being monitored by an enveloping surveillance and the loneliness among the conforming population of the isolated village-prison portrayed in the original series.

    “No.24 Hammer into Anvil” is one of the best realized pieces. It refers to one of the most violent episodes and alternates between spare, threatening free-form texture where all are busy shaping their own loosely connected sounds and nervous, brutal sonic attacks. All forms and each musician with their distinct voices mirror and intensify the emotional uncertainty and troubled atmosphere of the episode. Other pieces as “The New Number 2,” and as the series itself, offer an unsettling, enigmatic emotional impact. This open- ended piece leaves the listener contemplating about its mixed messages.

    Arresting, multi-layered suite that demands repeated listening.

  5. NYC-based bassist Max Johnson already boasts an impressively strong discography, after just two entries: Quartet (Not Two, 2013) and Elevated Vegetation (FMR, 2012). With a new crew on board for The Prisoner, he tackles that hoary chestnut the concept album. Except of course that in the medium of jazz, this doesn’t mean a string of banal lyrics squeezed into a narrative straitjacket, rather in this case a series of musical constructs inspired by the 1960s British TV series of the same name. For those who don’t know the program it was an influential and surreal thriller about a former secret agent held prisoner in a strange coastal village resort where his captors try to find out why he abruptly resigned from his job.

    However unfamiliarity with the show is no barrier to enjoyment of the disc. But by using the storytelling arc as a framework, Johnson comes up with a sequence of pieces which frequently verge on the mysterious, begetting unexpected configurations and moods, such as the sprightly jig which pops up midway through “No.24 Hammer into Anvil.” Johnson has selected his band mates wisely for such a venture. Both saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and violist Mat Maneri eschew the obvious in favor of inscrutable elliptical statements entirely in keeping with the leader’s enigmatic charts, which resolutely avoid the head-solos-head orthodoxy.

    Johnson excels not only as a writer but also as a performer, reveling in a resonant tone and incisive articulation, whether wielding the bow or picking the strings. Laubrock continues to blossom following her move to NYC. She exudes authority, whether intoning in a measured middle register or exploding into braying overblowing. By contrast Maneri offers a more restrained voice, as his microtonal lines engender a distinctive acerbic but ambiguous flavor though his fierce sawing on “The New Number 2” forms a highlight, testimony to the drama he can create. However the high pitched whistle he produces at the outset of “No.24 Hammer into Anvil” remains unsettling. This must be one of drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s most compelling outings. He covers all stations from conversational to tuneful to forceful, without ever becoming bombastic or overpowering.

    Johnson allows his cast room to express their own personalities while staying true to his overall conception. Right from the start it’s clear that the intertwining of the leader’s arco with Maneri’s sinuous viola provides an enormous asset, a point reinforced on the mercurial yet ascetic “No.12 Schitzoid Man (Gemini).” Following road testing, the players thoroughly nail the complex pieces. Pertinent examples abound but one noteworthy illustration presents in the seasoned way in which Laubrock enters after a Maneri/Fujiwara duet in “No.48 Living in Harmony” to bring about a roiling anthemic conclusion. While in the liners Johnson suggests that the work should be heard as a suite, each track stands amply on its own merits, revealing more on every subsequent listen.

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