I’ll be upfront: I was never a huge fanboy of J.J. Johnson, the great jazz Trombonist who helped modernize the instrument into the Be Bop world of the late 40s and beyond. Don’t get me wrong, I like his playing especially with other musicians I love. However, his own albums I’ve picked up over the years generally have left me flat.
I feel the same way about his periodic musical partner Kai Winding, also a trombonist of high regard. I have some of his records but I think one I filed under Kenny Burrell in as he is a featured guitarist there (Soul Surfing). I have even tried some of the “Jay and Kai” duo albums including their 1968 release on CTI, Israel (there marketed as K & J.J.). But… no… it wasn’t my jam, as they say…
That CTI album, however, is a good transition point to this review of a rare 1970 CTI release of J&K’s which was just reissued for Record Store Day: Stonebone. It is a really fine album and on the surface perplexing listening to this swinging grooving session with 21st Century ears.
It is worth exploring “why” it seems to have virtually disappeared. I’ve read some speculations online that it perhaps got lost in the shuffle when producer Creed Taylor sold the brand and left the shelter of its distributor A&M Records. There is the notion that A&M had its eye on the prize of The Carpenters at that time and didn’t have time for a jazz trombone duo.
I’ll add to that my own speculation: by 1969 J.J. Johnson was 45 and Kai Winding 47, so perhaps the label didn’t quite see a pair of aging dual trombonists quite aligning with the post-psychedelic and increasingly electrified youth market of the times. It probably didn’t help that their two prior albums for CTI were pretty bland affairs (which is why Israel is not in my collection today).
It probably didn’t help that the new album Stonebone was a big leap forward into what would soon be labeled jazz-rock fusion, incorporating elements of rock, soul and funk with jazz-based improvisation. Kudos must go out to whomever had the insight to pair the trombone duo with a hot band including Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, George Benson, Grady Tate, Bob James and Ross Tompkins.
Johnson must have felt the change in the air as he composed two of the tunes on the album which sits happily alongside a track by Joe Zawinul, one of the pioneers of the form. Jazz rock fusion emerged around this time from musicians on both sides of the fence. Jazz cats like Miles Davis and Larry Coryell leaning toward rock and soul/funk textures while rockers like Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and even The Grateful Dead were incorporating elements of jazz into their offering.
Maybe Stonebone was just too little to late for A&M — or perhaps just a bit too much too soon! I think it may have been more of the latter, especially given when this was recorded in 1969. This album feels like some current groove jazz jams I’ve heard in recent years (think Medeski, Martin and Wood). Even the trombones are hipper now what with all things New Orleans and soul revue horn sections more integrated into our collective musical mindset. In 1969, that was still a new thing with Chicago, The Buckinghams and Blood Sweat & Tears.
Heh heh… I just remembered also: Herb Alpert, the “A” of A&M was a trumpet player… just sayin’ …
Playful speculation aside, unfortunately the Stonebone album never saw the light of day in America and eventually had limited release in Japan. Over the years — probably due to the joys of sampling as well as current popularity of groove and soul jazz among DJ types, the album had become a hot collector’s piece. The hype sticker on the reissue calls it “the rarest of all CTI album!”
While I didn’t get out on the second Record Store Day (there are three this year!), one of my favorite local Bay Area stores, Tunnel Records got some copies in late and I was able to grab one. Generally I’m super pleased. The sort of murky brown-red colored vinyl — it looks more like reddish mud or a healing black and blue wound than candy apple red — is quiet and well centered.
There is are a couple small bump warps on my copy but it is nothing that impacts the play of the album. Happily, and most importantly it sounds good! While I don’t have an original to compare it to, I am not hearing any of the tell tale anomalies that raise red flags of bad sound. I’m not saying it isn’t a digital sourced LP, but if it is the mastering engineer did a good job reigning in any ugly textures.
So if you like a good groove that jams and has lots of soloing and hooky melodies, Stonebone may well be one for you to pick up. You’ll have to go to your favorite independent record store to find a copy or look for it on Discogs. It’s worth the journey.