START FROM THE START
With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Halifax-based J.F. Johnson says he has been playing music "since before your family dog was born," slyly driving my veiled query about his age underground. He tells me he began performing with a very definite idealistic sensibility---thinking of popular music in general as the perfect art form combining the song poetry and concerns of regular folks with the harmonic and melodic traditions of the world’s great folk and art musics.
Back at the very beginning of his musical journey, his influences were the looser rockers, many from the art-rock and old British invasion scenes, who were not shy about combining all kinds of musical and poetic traditions into a “loud, rockin’” musical art form. Players like Jack Bruce come to mind who, using the image-laden song poetry of Pete Brown within a rock context, would often stretch pieces into the extended jams also characteristic of the modal jazz and fusion of Bruce’s era.
Later on Johnson, who is also a bassist, dove into the R&B and funk side of things, listening intently to bass players like James Jamerson, the Bootsy Collins era of James Brown, and later on, the immortal Jaco Pastorious. As for the guitarists he listened to, they ranged from the sublime to the “totally far out”. Eventually he began a full-on listening journey into instrumental jazz. Here he cites guitarists ranging from Pat Martino and Jim Hall right to the other end of the spectrum with guitarists such as Pete Cosey and Derek Bailey.
He also notes the “influence” of great reed players, universally admired, such as John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, and piano players such as Brad Mehldau, but he looks somehow a little sheepish at all this, and when I call him on it, he says, “There are some players that get cited as influences so often it almost has no meaning. And besides, you may not actually hear it in my playing. These are just people I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and listening to.”
FROM OPEN MICS TO MONEY GIGS
With an open-minded and curious mindset, the younger Johnson still insisted on exploring everything from the folk music of Appalachia, to Bluegrass, to contemporary country music, to cutting-edge prog rock. He also started singing and composing, all the while keeping his ears tuned to the more progressive jazz of the time. During this time, and in keeping with his eclectic approach, he began appearing in coffee houses, and at country dances, with folk duos and country quartets. “I wasn’t mixed up at all” he says, “I was just naturally eclectic…open minded, and above all musically curious.”
His performances on bass, vocals and guitar progressed over the years through rock bands, country bands, folk music, and playing in pubs and clubs. He began a deeper study of harmony and improvisation. Eventually his musical journey was even to lead to performing experimental music with The Toronto Improviser's Orchestra where on some occasions he took the stage performing on guitar along with a few notable Canadian Juno award winners and nominees such as Eugene Martynec and Fern Lindzon.
Electric guitar was his first foray into musicianship. Johnson was attracted, like many beginning guitarists, by the violin-like tones and expressive vibrato of the accomplished rock guitarists of the era. “I was excited like a lot of fourteen-year-olds by the possibility of shredding sixteenth notes at lightning tempo” he says. “But then, as I matured, I realized that I could bring a lot of expression and nuance by putting more space, sustained notes and suspense into my improv. As I listened more to a broader range of Rock, Jazz and R&B players I began to incorporate subtlety into my solos, and I also began realizing the importance of working on good rhythm guitar playing. Like a lot of us as kids, we start by being drawn in by the flash and then we slowly realize the importance of good general accompaniment playing.” Around this time in his development he began working on right-hand hybrid methods and finger-picking, and then started to think about chord melody.
Johnson has also been playing acoustic guitar from the very beginning of his time as a guitarist. He now uses a number of acoustics, starting from premium-grade dreadnought guitars such as his Boucher, through to a Cordoba classic cutaway and other small-bodied steel-string stage guitars. He also uses an electrified Eastman arch-top from time to time for intimate jazz situations. Lately, on steel-string acoustic, he has started to prepare seriously for more solo work, arranging songs for solo instrumentals where he employs things like the "DADAGAD" tuning.
GUITAR SYNTHESIZER AND BEYOND
Since the mid-2000’s he has also been using a Roland guitar synthesizer with a steel-string Godin guitar as the controller. He loves having the available option of big, lush, synth tones for the appropriate musical situation. Today Johnson plays a variety of guitars and basses that reflect his diverse interests and influences. He has a remarkable collection of Canadian-built instruments from builders like Godin, Boucher and Lado. “I got into Canadian instruments years ago when I finally hung up my Fender and realized that I didn’t need to play my hero’s brand anymore. I am using Godins a lot these days”, he says. But he says he has found his "Holy Grail" guitar sound with a recent-model D'Angelico Excel with Kent Armstrong pickups. "It is the ultimate reconciliation of clarity and warmth, and fantastic for versatility."
After establishing himself as a fretted electric bass player he then decided to explore the double bass. “I always had this sound in my mind’s ear” Johnson says. “I had been composing and arranging sporadically on MIDI instruments but never really found that elusive bass sound. I had been developing as a bassist for years but what I was hearing in my head was much more like the fretless. The double bass has this big sense of mystique around it for me. I thought that stand-up bass was sort of magic.”
He then went out and acquired an NS Design double bass. Johnson says, “Despite its unorthodox appearance this instrument can be made to sound either like a legitimate double bass or a fretless electric….and it has all the sounds I had been envisioning in between.” He quickly realized that his sense of pitch was very well developed and his intonation on the instrument proceeded very quickly. Johnson realized quickly that double bass was going to be part of his life from then on. He furthered his studies on double bass for a time with noted Toronto bassist Mike Milligan. “Mike is great” says Johnson, “he helped me adopt correct technique on what is a fairly unorthodox instrument design where you can get off track fairly easily.” Johnson also vows that study with the bass bow will be in his future.
"I am using a Godin 5-string bass these days”, Johnson says. “It is a very ‘alive’ instrument, and I string it with flat-wounds using a high C rather than a low B for easier high register stuff”. He also uses another four-string outfitted with active electronics for what he calls “an amazing sound range.”
What’s in his future? “Well, I’m very open,” Johnson says. “I’d like to go get a taste of everything that’s in my background." Citing his folkie side, Johnson says he would love to collaborate with a singer-songwriter, and he relishes the idea of writing more vocal music. But, he says “I can’t leave my rock side behind either. And I would also love to stay involved with jazz and other improvised musics which are all part of my daily musical life.” Also a life-long poet, Johnson vows to find new and innovative ways to combine music and poetry going forward.
DON’T TICK THE BOX…TRANSCEND
Johnson relates a story about using a “musician’s match” web site. While signing up for it, he found the site’s rules confined him to one or two style categories when he would really have preferred to check off many more of the style boxes they provided. “I felt confined, and a little short-changed, especially considering the fact that these folks were performing a service for me rather than vice versa.”
Johnson sees his own challenge very clearly. “You know, music marketing and the various style categories don’t have to just fence us in." In discussions with others he says he frequently identifies himself as "a jazz musician," but like a lot of contemporary so-called jazz musicians he is not ever fully comfortable in that pigeon-hole. "And audiences are more open than we may think.” Johnson cites two influential global players who refused to be hemmed in by the dictates of one single style and who achieved great results: John McLaughlin, who let Indian music into his jazz soul, and Joe Zawinul, who let African music into his own jazz framework.
Johnson goes on to say, “Some players and audiences do love to get right inside of one style, and that’s okay, but I’ve always had this general urge to transcend. I think it’s something I want to do with styles, but also in a bigger way, transcending your instrument too. What I mean to say is that when I have heard really great musicians in concert I often stop thinking about them as reed players or piano players or guitarists, or style exemplars, per se, because what they are saying musically is so charged that it seems to transcend ‘guitar-ism’ or ‘piano-ism.’ You just get to the point where the musical communication is so pure you don’t give a damn about some category they may fall into. This is what I mean by ‘not ticking the box,’ or actually not even caring about a category; You just want to transcend. My challenge, to myself and other musicians, is to try to find a way that somehow bridges things... Ultimately it’s about the meaning of the song more than the style anyway, and that’s true for lots and lots of people. People just want to relate.”
Look for upcoming information on J.F. Johnson’s
current projects: J.F. Johnson’s Monotet, and
J.F. Johnson’s Ensèmtet.
J.F. Johnson can be reached by e-mail at: Orchetar@protonmail.com
(note: now communicating over Zoom as well)