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First Place

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  • Not J.J. Johnson's initial public offering by any means, First Place was done with only a quartet in 1957 for Columbia Records, where other efforts by the legendary jazz trombonist were set in a larger ensemble format. Long out of print, this is now on CD with bonus tracks from 1954 featuring Charles Mingus. Playing standards and originals, Johnson assembled a mighty band with pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Paul Chambers, and especially on-fire drummer Max Roach, a group you'd be hard-pressed to top. The band was so good -- and loaded with material -- that a second album, Blue Trombone, was issued from the extended session. Included here are many initial takes omitted from the original vinyl album. Bop is their thing, and Johnson's flawless lines on his trombone were never more in evidence than on this stupendous effort. From the original album, tracks like "It's Only a Paper Moon," Johnson's compositions "Commutation" with Flanagan's hefty lead-out, the fast and loose "Be My Love" or "Nickels & Dimes" are all prime examples of the band's prowess. The Sonny Rollins-penned "Paul's Pal" is conversely patient and bluesy, "For Heaven's Sake" is pristine under Flanagan's confluence, and the exceptional version of "Cry Me a River" is infused with a light tango foundation before getting down to swinging. Of the additional material, "I've Got You Under My Skin" is another tasty bop vehicle, while "Out of My Dreams" is dainty, and the angelic Flanagan again shines on "God Bless the Child." With Mingus, percussionist Sabu Martinez, pianist Wynton Kelly, and drummer Kenny Clarke, Johnson's approach is more that of a teammate than as a leader. Mingus' thick, sinewy basslines penetrate the flying "Jay," dig deep into the easy swinger "Time After Time" and "Too Marvelous for Words," and go back to bop for the percolating "Coffee Pot." It's unfortunate that these groupings would never re-form afterwards, but as a time capsule, Johnson's smaller ensemble dates have stood the test of time as perhaps his best ever -- which is debatable, considering all his fine work, but First Place is indisputably brilliant. ~ Michael G. Nastos
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