Baritone sax doesn’t really need any introductions. Deep voiced and self-assured, it’s an instrument that often disposes of delicacy to get its point across. But even the most direct of instruments are capable of acts of nuance and delicacy. On Michiana, his debut album, Jonah Parzen-Johnson explores the sonic possibilities of the baritone sax while simultaneously maintaining a lyrical narrative.
Result? A fun listen. And it’s a listen that also engages on an intellectual level without getting all didactic and tedious.
Your album personnel: Jonah Parzen-Johnson (baritone sax).
As a fiction writer, I get a little irritated when encountering books that use real people and real events as the springboard for the imagination to run loose. To my mind, that’s wholly unnecessary. We each of us have worlds upon worlds inside us… all the material any of us would ever need to conjure up the most brilliant creations. It’s just a question of trusting our imagination and its ability to shape ideas into the right form.
Parzen-Johnson seems to understand this.
There are many variables which serve to inform the music of Michiana. Early in life, he was drawn to the experimental jazz of the AACM. He was also drawn to the stripped-down folk music of Appalachia. Formerly of Chicago and now of Brooklyn, it’s the tiny of town of Michiana which acts as the setting for the album that shares its name. In that way that distant memories attain the qualities of dream, Johnson tells of his long ago times in Michiana, all alone, using just his baritone sax, and with no overdubbing or effects. He’s telling a story.
Baritone sax is a pretty powerful instrument, even all by its lonesome. But Parzen-Johnson uses a soft touch, letting the bari sing languorous melodies, notes that drift slowly away, the next note sounding only when the previous one blinks off into silence. Sometimes those notes attain a respectful solemnity, and sometimes Parzen-Johnson ushers forth the bari’s full sonic capacity and lets the sound expand outward until it envelops everything in sight. But in the end, whether his sound is more like mouse or mountain, there is a conversational restraint to this music, representative of a musician who pays his respect to the melody and the understanding that there are listeners present who are there to enjoy it.
There is a pattern to much of this album’s music. Most tracks begin with a back porch languor, a modus operandi of easing into a day nice and slow. The halfway point of each song often marks when the sun is highest in the sky and generating its greatest heat. And, eventually, darkness drops over each song, cascading it with its own brand of peacefulness. The repetition of form works well for a solo album, which inherently has a sense of unbounded Anything Can Happen… an artist all alone in a room with their instrument and no collaborators to add direction or reign them in. Restraint can be such an ugly word when applied to an experimental artist… except when its application brings clarity to the vision and vibrancy to the final product. Sometimes you just gotta trust that an object of creativity will learn to breathe on its own. In that regard, Michiana is certainly full of life.
The album ends with two remixed tracks, where other musicians twist some of Parzen-Johnson’s previous tracks inside out and around. One of them has a nice enough Windy & Carl drone intensity and the other track a pleasantly staggered bounce as a bow tie wrapped around Parzen-Johnson’s sonic blasts, but neither really speak to the heart of the music. It’s probably the only thing I can find to criticize about this excellent recording.
Released on the Primary Records label.
Jazz from the Brooklyn scene.
You can stream the album, and purchase it, on the artist’s bandcamp page.