Max Johnson: When the Streets Were Quiet

, composer


Composer, bassist, bandleader, and stylistic chameleon Max Johnson releases this collection of his recent through-composed chamber music, displaying his impressive versatility across many contexts. Unlike some musicians who wear multiple aesthetic caps, Johnson does not present a hybrid amalgamation of the various kinds of music he is involved in, instead we hear a cultivated and thoughtful compositional voice within the contemporary classical idiom, perhaps informed by his work in jazz, bluegrass, and other styles, but on a subterranean level that steers clear of asserting their influence on the surface presentation of the music.


On When the Streets Were Quiet, composer, bassist, and bandleader Max Johnson turns the focus to his finely wrought chamber music. Active in many contexts, Johnson is voraciously eclectic and impressively versatile. The works on this collection betray little overt reference to his wide range of stylistic activities, instead zeroing in on his craft centered approach to composition. With an emphasis on counterpoint, imitative textures, structural markers defined by instrumental relationships, and broad arcs of direction and activity, Johnson creates lush, intricate works that balance an elegiac lyricism with well considered rigor. The featured performers are violinist Lauren Cauley, violist Carrie Frey, cellist Maria Hadge, clarinetist Lucy Hatem, and pianist Fifi Zhang.

Minerva for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello opens the program with swooping lines that snake between the instruments of the quartet. Punctuated arrival notes articulate the direction of the composite line; splashes of harmonic color emerge from the living canvas of activity. When the texture thins out, a pointillistic klangfarben reveals itself more clearly, spinning out one thread of melody as its tone color constantly morphs. The ensemble sections of Minerva are set off by expressive solo and duo passages, contrasting the hybrid expression of the tutti sections with moments of intimate drama. A dense climactic section releases the work’s accumulated energy with a torrent of layered lines (perhaps reflecting the influence of Johnson’s mentor and dedicatee of the work, composer Jason Eckardt) before the piece finishes with a poignant cello solo.

The clarinet takes a central role in Nine O’Clock When the Streets Were Quiet, joined by violin, viola, and cello. The strings provide an ominous pad of closely spaced intervals over which the clarinet plays a searching figure in an initially compressed register that patiently expands over four minutes, intensified by accents and sudden tremolos in the strings. In the second section, the clarinet drops out, as the strings weave around each other in a similarly small register, like reptiles slithering in the mud. This time the cello and viola widen the register, driving towards an arrival, while the clarinet and violin provide long, connective tones. The sustained textures become the primary idea in the subsequent section, and indeed the remainder of the piece, as the texture slowly settles into the intense closely spaced intervals from the opening to close, this time in a higher tessitura. Johnson’s sound painting of a nighttime streetscape is one of tense apprehension and foreboding.

Johnson’s String Trio is organized into multiple sections delineated by solos, pitch areas, and texture, and is primarily written in a harmonic language that evokes the early 20th century transition from extended tonality into free atonality. It takes a surprising turn at the five minute point to a setting of a Barber-esque melody, briefly referencing a familiar kind of mid-century, wide-eyed Americana. An accented four note chromatic figure interrupts the reverie and anchors the following contrasting section, returning the piece to the thornier pitch landscape, now accompanied by vigorous rhythmic interplay. Percolating pizzicati animate the texture before the work closes with a return to the hopeful material from its midway point, acknowledging and integrating some of the harmonic ambiguity from the other sections of the work in a final progression that ends unresolved on a minor ninth between cello and violin.

Echoes of a Memory opens with the clarinet and viola trading off sustained lines, supported by ethereal chords in the piano. The middle register emphasis of the instrumentation is subverted by high sustained notes in the clarinet and clarion harmonics in the viola. Flowing lines in alternating unison between piano and one of the other instruments propel the texture forward towards a torrent of interwoven independent lines. Johnson returns to the watery chords in the piano and sustained tones in clarinet and viola for the close of the piece.

- Dan Lippel

All music composed by Max Johnson (Max Johnson Music ASCAP)

Recorded by Aaron Nevezie at The Bunker Produced by Max Johnson

Edited by Max Johnson

Mixed and Mastered by Zach Herchen

Poetry & Liner Notes by Todd Colby

Artwork by Leah Asher

Design by Marc Wolf,

Photos of Ensemble by Max Johnson

Photo of Max Johnson by Aidan Grant

Made possible by a grant from the Café Royal Cultural Foundation

Max Johnson

Described as “an intrepid composer, architect of sound and beast of the bass...” (Brad Cohan, NYC Jazz Record) composer-bassist Max Johnson creates complex worlds of sound, challenging his listeners to engage deeply and be rewarded with an experience always crafted with love, care, and clarity. With nine albums and over two thousand concerts internationally with artists like Anthony Braxton, Mary Halvorson, Tyshawn Sorey, John Zorn, and Mivos Quartet, Johnson brings a wild energy and excitement. Johnson currently teaches music theory at Brooklyn College and is the father to a beautiful chihuahua named Gabby.

Celebrated as “one of the more versatile figures… a leader with a strong, woody tone” (Peter Margasak, The Chicago Reader), Johnson is equally adept as a composer, improviser, and interpreter. He has carved out a unique path in the contemporary music, jazz, and bluegrass worlds as a boundless force of positivity, with a non-stop touring schedule and a prolific body of work. His music has been featured at Lincoln Center, the United Nations, Lollapalooza, Bern Jazz Festival, Delfest, Rockygrass, Greyfox, Old Settler's Music Festival, High Sierra Music Festival, Fayetteville Roots Festival, Strawberry Music Festival, 3 Sisters Music Festival, and the Quebec City Festival. Johnson also has a prolific recording history, having released nine albums under his own name, has been a part of over 50 albums, and can be heard Spike Lee’s Academy Award winning film the BlacKkKlansman.

In 2012 and 2014 was voted No.2 Bassist of the Year and No. 5 Musician of the Year in El Intruso's International Critics Poll. In 2018 he was commissioned by the University of Glaskow to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Claude Debussy with his work for oboe, horn and harpsichord, Clawed, followed by a commission by the Steven R. Gerber Trust for I Have Heard the Chimes at Midnight for Brass Trio and Piano. In 2020 the Jerome Foundation commissioned him for a new extended work Transformations which was featured in a portrait concert at Roulette, in Brooklyn, NY.

He has toured, recorded, and performed with some of the most legendary names in his fields, including Muhal Richard Abrams, Nels Cline, David Grisman, Ingrid Laubrock, Sam Bush, William Parker, Bryan Sutton, Joseph Jarman, Karl Berger, Kris Davis, Darol Anger, the Travelin’ McCourys, members of Talea Ensemble, Bang on a Can, and the De Capo Chamber Players. No matter the style of music, Max Johnson is heavily influenced by memory, surprise, stasis, and natural development, and cites the writing of Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka as important inspiration. Max Johnson holds a Bachelors Degree from The New School, a Masters Degree from both Brooklyn College and the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and has studied with Henry Grimes, Jason Eckardt, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Jane Ira Bloom, John Mallia, Mark Helias, Eric Wubbels, Cameron Brown, and Kirk Nurock.