J.J. Johnson: Poem for Brass


Poem for Brass


The Brass Ensemble of the Jazz and Classical Music Society


The Birth of the Third Stream (Columbia/Legacy CD 64929)

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Miles Davis (flugelhorn), J.J. Johnson (trombone), Joe Wilder (trumpet),

John Ware, Bernie Glow, Arthur Stratter, Mel Broiles, Carmine Fornarotto (trumpets), Urbie Green, John Clark (trombones), Joseph Singer, Ray Alonge, Arthur Sussman, Jim Buffington (French horns), John Swallow, Ronald Ricketts (baritone horn), Bill Barber (tuba), Milt Hinton (bass), Osie Johnson (drums)


Composed by J. J. Johnson. Conducted by Gunther Schuller


Recorded: New York, October 23, 1956


Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

This composition directly resulted from formation of the Jazz and Classical Music Society, an ensemble led by Gunther Schuller and John Lewis to present both rarely heard and newly composed music played by an ensemble of classical and jazz musicians. The first concert took place in 1955 and included the Modern Jazz Quartet. The second concert featured compositions by Schuller, Jimmy Giuffre, Gabrielli, and this sparkling multipart work by J.J. Johnson. All of the music performed at the concert remains impressive, but "Poem for Brass" is exceptional. A full score of the work is available, and the piece has been played by numerous brass sections of major symphonies. (A highlight of my own concertgoing experience was to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra brass perform this piece.)

The work has four movements, and while each has a subtitle, they do not appear in the published score, suggesting that Johnson dropped them at some point. Several commentators have mentioned the influence of Paul Hindemith's music on J.J., but the result is still pure Johnson. "Sonnet for Brass" features a Miles Davis solo over various brass textures and combinations (and imagine for a moment: six trumpets and Miles on the same date). The end of Miles's solo is written, and almost immediately Johnson takes over with a short solo, the beginning of which is also written. A short melodic statement by baritone horns leads to an incomplete cadence, ending the section. A short, elegiac-like section leads to "Ballad for Joe," a solo statement by the excellent and highly underrated Joe Wilder, who is as comfortable with a Haydn concerto as a hot solo. The next section is called "Meter and Metal" and features the brass alternating phrases with Osie Johnson's cymbals (his part is fully notated). Before we know it, the tuba begins a fugue which is the highlight of the work. Recasting the pitches of the melody from the beginning of the piece, this is a grand and glorious tour de force with voices all over the place. A short recap leads to a freely played ending with a delicious major chord.

This was certainly one of the highlights of J.J. Johnson's musical career. In the minds of many of his fans, he was a master trombonist, but "Poem for Brass" will always remind us that he was a great composer as well.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof

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