Jonah Parzen-Johnson – Michiana (2012)
I have begun to see a pattern in the Bari tone that I most identify with among the musicians that listen to. The baritone sax tone that I seem most attractive to tends to come from players on vintage low-Bb horns and playing Lebayle mouthpieces. Jonah Parzen-Johnson has this “Labayle” tone and fantastic phrasing, and he needs it for this unaccompanied musical journey. Yes, this is unaccompanied baritone saxophone in it rawest and most exposed. Parzen-Johnson is widely seen as experimental or depending on your musical tastes, Avant-garde.
Unaccompanied experimental baritone may not be everyone’s cup of tea but Parzen-Johnson brings something unexpected to his compositions. His compositions have all the subtleties and complexities of a one man Broadway play. It is in this light that I recommend that the uninitiated listen to this album. Consider that he is telling a story one track or act at a time. Each of these musical acts refines the theme and conveys a new emotional moment in the play. On his track “You probably don’t’ remember”, he repeats a phrase which includes a sequence with multiphonics which give it the feeling of being pain filled or anguished.
Unlike Collin Stetson whose unaccompanied Bass saxophone solo albums I have reviewed, Parzen-Johnson doesn’t use multiple horn microphones, throat microphones, and minutes long sung harmonies. Instead he focuses on telling a story with repetition, tone, and phrasing .I do not mean to suggest that Parzen-Johnson isn’t using advanced techniques. He does use multiphonics, a touch of altissimo, and circular breathing to great effect. The best part of his use of these effects is that they are not distracting or the centerpiece of his performance. They serve to advance the narrative and flesh out the sonic character of the track.
I called this album unaccompanied bari sax but that is not totally true. The final 2 tracks are electronic music. If there is a trace to bari to be heard in “I Turn Left Over Train Tracks III” I had a hard time identifying it. These tracks feature electronic soundscapes. They reminded me of something that would work well on a remake “Blade Runner”.
Now this album isn’t likely to be heard on your local Jazz station unless it’s a college station and it’s late at night. It is colorful and exciting but not very access able to the average jazz listener. Performers like Parzen-Johnson and Collin Stetson have an aural vision that doesn’t easily fit within the more mainstream jazz environment. They bring rawness and at times an emotional nudity that can only be shared in the context of a solo performer and their instrument. No cover-up and no collaboration.
TAKE AWAY: This isn’t necessarily music to get romantic to but it is music that makes you think and feel. If modern experimental story telling interests you then buy this album. If you want a great example of tone and sensitivity then buy this album. If you are looking for the next Adams or Mulligan then save your pennies.