Intergalactic Trip with Alphonso Johnson Quartet

Alphonso-Johnson's-Quartet-Teatro Solís-28-de-julio-2016-foto-RICARDO-GOMEZ.jpg

Picture: Ricardo Gómez

While the sensual voice of Solís Theater invited us to switch off our mobile phones, my friend Julio said at my side: “Well, the story begins to get written. Ommm”, And the whole theater clapped at the entrance of those geniuses to the stage.

As if they wanted to extend that Ommm by my friend, the Alphonso Johnson Quartet began their concert with a mystic combination of sounds, creating an atmosphere full of expectation, which would be venerably honored during all night. That intro preceded a fantastic version of “Resolution”, by John Coltrane.

The emotion with which I listened to that first theme was such that I had to take some deep breaths and tell me that I’d better calm down. But my emotion had great reasons to exist and be huge that night. Among other things, in year 1988 life made me discover Weather Report’s music, by the hand of a great teacher, who in each lesson lent me recorded cassettes with music played by these geniuses. I devoured them and, of course, copied them. Not for an instant at that time did I imagine, when I was so impressed by how they could play those wonders, and when I was taking my first tiny steps in being able to identify the sound of the bass (ha!) among those jazz sounds, that almost thirty years later I would be able to see a quartet formed by two of those musicians in the Solís Theater, playing live some of those same themes. I hope you will forgive my nostalgic moment, but this personal background had an influence in the fact that this concert of Alphonso Johnson Quartet was very, very special to me.

The Quartet had its full sound at that first theme, already. Federico Ramos in the guitar and Gary Fukushima in keyboards exuded an immense confidence with melodies. Alphonso Johnson and Chester Thompson could well have been one only person, and one that is very firmly rooted in life: listening and watching them was stunning. It is a brilliant duo.

The most swing-filled version of Equinox I have so far heard followed. All musicians contributed from their instruments and with their presence with that beauty, in a spectacular way. Federico with his guitar installed in our hearts a very magical combination of 50% beauty and 50% nostalgia. The yin yang could graphically represent what I felt with those sounds emerging from Federico. Gary, in turn, chose some sounds (all night long, in fact) which were super original and which transported us to a new, unknown place. Chester and Alphonso demonstrated all the time what they had explained in a joint clinic the previous day: all instruments play melody, all instruments are responsible for keeping time, and the main job of all musicians is to listen to the whole musical result. But they play so great!

Alphonso is swing personified. Equinox, in particular, asks him to play several times the same combination of notes. It is remarkable how he plays them each time with exactly the same intention and the same enjoyable energy. And that swing! No, no, no… it’s incredible!

I always feel the urge to thank musicians who leave notes sounding for one more instant, because they give me the opportunity to enjoy them a little longer. With bass players this is variable, but Alphonso always enables them to last their maximum, which I thank so much. So beautiful! They linger in the air and there is a very special unity among his notes.

The following song was that superb one, composed by Alphonso Johnson, called “Bahama Mama”, in which Alphonso offered us one of the several wonderful solos of the night. Such an emotion! From this theme on, I would have given my life to be able to dance during the rest of the concert. Both joy and swing generated by them were so terrific that the cells of the body were literally increasing their vibrations in those of us who were listening and it was very hard to stay still in our seats. The melody played in the bass is something crazy. The emotion is indescribable with words, but do go to Youtube and search for the song. Do not postpone it for a second! Do me the favor of playing it as the soundtrack to the rest of this narration. The bass here is pure beautiful and super rhythmic melody. And watching him play is an additional joy. All his body resonates with what he plays. Subtly at times, and quite more evident at others, each cell of his dances with what he plays. It is super beautiful to witness this and it nourishes the best of all of us. He transmits vitality.

Besides, his friendly nature is evident. For example, a kind gesture of his was to talk some words he knew in Spanish. And he introduced his musicians with huge respect and warmth, and with a humble, calm and beautiful attitude.

At the following song Gary Fukushima gave us a wonderful solo as a present, with those extraterrestrial sounds of his, which I loved. At some point at this song, he and Alphonso intertwined their sounds in such a way that we got the impression of their being playing together for several years, when in fact we all know it was not so, as this band joined very recently.  That amazed me. Later Freddy added himself with his guitar and the same called my attention. How is it possible that they sound in that way, having played for such a short while together? I guess the answer is that they are professional musicians and music language is no bit mystery to them.

While the bass introduction of the next song was in the air, I thanked life for the magical opportunity of directly receiving on my body the vibrations of those notes, without any mediating appliance. These notes heal our spirit. Thank you!

Giant Steps’ version was something out of this world. As if they had taken us to another dimension, to the one where all precious dreams come true. Gary again did magic with his keyboards. Alphonso’s bass kept sculpting sounds, which generated a huge joy for being alive (he played a very beautiful solo, but let me stress that all along he played amazingly beautiful sounds). The guitar gave a marvelous touch to the end of this song, with a presence and a decision that wow, it caused a big impression on me and triggered my curiosity for more music by Freddy.

When one hour and a half of concert had gone by, they announced Naima, and here is where I press the break and I can’t help making a very special mention to Chester. What I’m about to say is something he did for the whole concert, but especially in this song it was something amazing. Doing a quite brutal simplification, I will state that drummers do mainly two things: one, they keep time with what can be called “the groove”, and two, they stress or support certain moments of the musical flow. As each one of the other instruments have, at their turn, their own individual dynamics, generally the drummer stresses moments of the “singing voice”, the one that is “more evident”. This may be a human voice or the melody played by any of the instruments. Well, what generated my full admiration during the whole concert, and especially in this song, was Chester Thompson’s mastery to gradually accent all and each one of the instruments in this magical texture of melodies that took place, permanently keeping the groove that gave cohesion to the song. He said: “the secret is in listening as if you were sitting in the audience”. From my seat in the ninth row, my body could not believe how he was capable of anticipating the momentary prominence of each sound coming from each one of the other three instruments and accent them all in the exact moment in such a way that the whole creation got a striking presence, with the planet’s greatest musicality, keeping the groove, the cohesion, and with an absolutely delicious musical taste. Oh, and everything flowing with such spontaneity that he seemed to be humming in the shower. I ignore whether we will at some point actually realize what we witnessed that day. I think I’ve not really, yet. At one of the moments when I felt my excitement was too overwhelming, I took my eyes to the sky, seeking someone to thank, and I found that at the front right corner of the theater’s roof a spotlight was doing something very beautiful: it was projecting one of the drumheads of Chester’s drumset… ¡one could see it vibrating at the roof! And the shadow of his left hand too. As if the theater would be looking for ways to embed that memory. I don’t blame it. I am also doing my best to keep this memory forever.

Being able to listen to and watch Chester Thompson in action was one of the best gifts I’ve received in my life. I was hooked by the sound of his cymbals, by how loose his HH cymbals are and how by being so comfortable, those cymbals flow with the music masterfully. His independence is something absolutely awesome to witness and how it enables him to actually be in the music completely and freely play whatever he feels should be played. It called my attention how he can play with such decision and at the same time with such warmth in the sounds he produces. This is a little crazy, and I know it, but I think his drumming projects the presence his person holds. Listening to the notes coming from the drumset was transforming and so was witnessing how his special listening took place. I don’t know how many musicians took this particular blessing home. I hope several did.

What happened later was an intergalactic trip. The roof I mentioned earlier opened as a gate and the stage and all the seats took off. Destination was: distant galaxies. Please allow me to take a deep breath before saying it, because my hands tremble: they played BLACK MARKET. Black Market played by that amazing quartet! Black Market played by two of Weather Report’s musicians! Black Market played some footsteps from us, directed to us! Black Market vibrating in our cells and in our soul! I don’t want to invoke any deities, so as to avoid offending anyone, but ohhh, that was not something human only.  Those who were there will be able to say whether I’m exaggerating or not. I am still in ecstasy today. And it was fantastic how Gary and Freddy amalgamated with Alphonso and Chester in such a way! These two giants have played together since 1969 and they are an amazing force on stage, but Gary and Freddy united to that force in the best way, they shone during the whole night, they played amazing solos and the four of them generated a concert that we will never, never forget.

I want to close this note with a huge thank you to all the persons who had something to do with this night taking place at the Solís Theater. Each one knows their role and they know what part I thank them for. From my teacher’s generosity in 1988 up to all those who made possible that on July 28th, 2016 we lived such an experience. And, of course, to the musicians, those light beings who make our life more enjoyable.

The original Spanish version of this note was published in COOLTIVARTE

At the original entry you can see several other pictures taken by great photographer Ricardo Gómez.



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