From jingles to Downtown jazz

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March 28, 2005 // UPDATED 1:53 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Greg Corradini
Greg Corradini

When he's not laying down a bass line for Dairy Queen jingles, he might be onstage at the Dakota Jazz Club, 1010 Nicollet Mall, backing international acts such as London vocalist Stacey Kent. Other times, bassist Gordon Johnson can be found with his head in a piano, tuning it.

Jazz connoisseurs might not immediately recognize Johnson's name, but his rsum is an ink trail of music history, from his college performances in orchestras with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, to his six album appearances with folk singer Greg Brown.

With the December release of his third jazz CD "TRIOS Version 3.0," Johnson shows that he is still embracing jazz even though the American public "doesn't understand the music."

That misunderstanding doesn't diminish Johnson's love of his job, however.

"I really love music," he said. "It's what I do."

Feeling good

It's a Sunday afternoon, and Johnson has just relived a slice of his musical past.

He finished watching a DVD that Chuck Mangione, the trumpeter/composer known best for his 1970s melodic jazz and the big hit, "Feels So Good," sent him for Christmas.

Johnson was the bassist in Mangione's band from 1982 to 1989, and the DVD is of a concert they played 15 years ago in Cannes, France. Johnson's memory was jolted. "It's just bizarre to see myself," Johnson said. "We were really smoking, and we did our best to make it a good show. They were good times."

Before Johnson joined Mangione's group, the two knew each other at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., a place Johnson said opened his ears to the different sounds of Miles Davis, Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra.

The best thing for you

Back when Johnson was in junior high and high school in Wayzata, the Beatles invaded American pop culture.

It was the 1960s, and the Beatles' melodic music left a distinct impression on the teenager, who decided to become "a pop and rock 'n' roll star."

Said Johnson, "at first, that was the thought."

He and his brother Jimmy, also now a professional bassist, started a band. Gordon was the singer, songwriter and guitarist.

But more shifts in the American soundscape arrived with rock-fusion bands such as Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago. "They had this jazz orientation," Johnson said. "That was an inspiring sound for the ear."

The inspiration guided Johnson's ears toward exploring other tones.

Although he graduated from Eastman with a bachelors degree in music in classical flute, Johnson was already gigging during college with a professional jazz-piano trio, Petrus. In 1973, the trio entered a contest put on by the Newport Jazz Festival and wound up taking first place out of 500 entrants.

At Eastman, Johnson also met horn players, drummers and pianists, who later became pivotal in his obtaining jobs and touring opportunities. A good number of those college friends appear on Johnson's three albums.

Steve Gadd, a drummer for Paul Simon, James Taylor and Chick Corea, is a friend from college. He drums on two of the songs on "TRIOS Version 3.0." And the pianist Biff Hannon got Johnson his "first honest on-the-road gig" with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson's jazz-pop band.

"You'd go out, ride the bus and play a gig every night," Johnson said. "Maynard had a really powerful band, and people loved the music."

That was Johnson's early 20s and, over the next 30-odd years, Johnson played everything from smoky blues with guitarist Roy Buchanan to bluegrass shows. "I've been such a lucky guy for someone who wants to be musician," he said.

Luck? Forget about it. Music is in his blood.

A family affair

The 52-year-old Johnson grew up in Wayzata. When he was in 5th grade, his mother, a piano teacher, taught him the proper way to read music "right off the bat."

Today, those music-reading skills help him get jobs in commercials.

Johnson said he often gets called up to record a commercial jingle, such as the one he did for Purina Puppy Chow a few weeks ago. Johnson enjoys doing jingles; his musical training allows him to come into the studio and sight-read the music quickly.

Cliff Johnson, Gordon's father, was the fourth-chair bassist in the former Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. He also tuned the orchestra's pianos and was a professor of piano technology at the University of Minnesota, MacPhail campus. In high school, Gordon learned parts of the piano-tuning trade from his father.

Since moving back to Minneapolis in 1989 from Connecticut, Johnson splits his duties, like his father, between being a professional musician and a piano technician for his company, Tonalities, Inc.

"I've gotten to the point where I can tune a piano in my sleep," Johnson said.

Currently, he's in charge of tuning pianos for clients such as the Artists' Quarter Jazz Club, the Dakota Jazz Club and numerous recording studios, among others.

"I like it because it is related to music," he said. "And I don't have to show up at an office."

Revolving door

Though he doesn't show up at an office, Johnson does put in appearances at recording studios. He has turned out three piano-trio albums since 1996.

In keeping with his "revolving door" concept on his previous albums, "TRIOS Version 3.0" uses four different drummers and piano players on 10 album tracks. Johnson said the concept allows each performer's personality to shine through.

The piano-trio format pleases him; he's always been attracted to the trios of Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett.

"I like the freedom it lends you," Johnson said. "There is the responsibility to keep the structure supported, and there is the freedom that you have to open up and play."

While some rock groups with major-label budgets can go into a studio and work over and over on snare drum sound for three days, Johnson's trios can whip out moving compositions in one-shot recording sessions.

On "TRIOS Version 3.0," Johnson teams up with pianist Mathew Fries on Fries' sultry composition, "Orchid." For the recording, drummer Phil Hey, Fries and Johnson went into the studio, sight-read the composition for the first time and did three takes on it.

"The first take had all the magic," Johnson said. "That's the one on the album."

The same thing happened for other songs on the album, such as Benny Weinbeck's tune "Laughing Blues," which were the first notes that Weinbeck, Steve Gadd and Johnson ever played together.

Johnson plays a range of jazz styles and "TRIOS Version 3.0" reflects his eclectic scope. A number of Tin Pan Alley standards and bossa nova grooves on the album keep it from locking into a single musical style.

Pianist Giacomo Aula's "Canzone Por Nino Rota," with its irregular rhythm changes, is the most modern composition on the album.

In the expansive song, Johnson's bass alternates between playing the tune's melody and anchoring its underlying structure, before he stretches out for a minute-long solo.

On the other hand, Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave" is an up-tempo example of how pianist Jon Weber, drummer Joe Pulice and Johnson can give a bee-bop tune its expected due in propulsion.

For a musician who has played with as many different people as Johnson, new recording alternatives and an assortment of musical styles must always be welcome. "Anything you play too much gets old," Johnson said. "If I had to play bee-bop tunes every night, I'd die."

Upcoming Gordan Johnson shows

Gordon Johnson appears with pianist Benny Weinbeck at D'Amico Cucina
When: 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., every Fri. and Sat.
Where: D'Amico Cucina, 100 N. 6th St.
Cost: Free

Vocalist Stacey Kent
When: 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., April 25, 26, and 27.
Where: Dakota Jazz Club, 1010 Nicollet Mall
Cost: 7 p.m. show $30, 9 p.m. show $25