Mark Johnson celebrates Wednesdays

Mark Johnson celebrates Wednesdays

By Molly Fleming, Staff Writer

Mark Johnson is back in town, after a long hiatus from the local scene. This just proves the local saying: They always come back! Originally a Rockford native, this saxophonist and horn mastermind is actually playing weekly gigs at Big Cities Lounge at 905 E. State St.. Johnson performed with the local boys last Wednesday night to a small, but enthusiastic audience of about six people. Hosie Baskins (drums), Freddie Miller (bass) and Ryan Swanson (guest sax) came together with Johnson for an evening of jazz with a Five Spot-like atmosphere.

Johnson has spent the last several years in New York City, returning occasionally and irregularly to his hometown to grace the area with his musicianship. Having been signed to JVC Records (putting out about three albums under that label in the last decade), Johnson has also been respected with wide radio airplay. He has been a mentor to many of the local Rockford horn players, including Swanson, who sat in for a few tunes Wednesday night. “There’s a large community of musicians who respect Mark….As far as horn players in the area,” Swanson commented, “…he’s probably hands down the master.”

Last Wednesday’s informal show gave the “audience” a sophisticated lineup of tunes and sounds. Baskins is truly one of the greatest drummers in the area, and it’s a wonder he’s not playing every night. His taste in percussion is key, and he rarely overplays.

One of the best achievements of any musician is the ability to make his chosen instrument sound like another. Miller is a classy musician who turns his electric bass into any other instrument he takes a fancy to. Don’t be surprised if a few piano keys are heard in his solo, or if the higher registers of a guitar or even harp, come through. Miller sounds as if he utilizes techniques that Jaco Pastorius revolutionized in the ’70s and ’80s.

The dynamic between Swanson and Johnson is remarkable. The master with his proficient student who has learned the tricks of the trade sent out a warm inspiration throughout the room. Swanson is known around town well enough for listeners to recognize his playing style, but performing with his mentor, even for just a few tunes, brought his playing style to a new level. Hopefully, Swanson will return to sit in with his mentor in the future.

Johnson himself is near to indescribably brilliant in his musicianship. His note articulation is eloquent, melodic and classic. The tones that he makes with his horn are as steady and pure as Getz, only newer. It is truly a great honor for Rockford to be able to host such a musician who brings so much to the music community through instrumental intellectualism. There really aren’t any complaints, except one minor subjective criticism; perhaps the synth-sounds that Johnson utilizes occasionally on the keyboard and the electric flute are musical aspects that are not really Rockford-oriented. Nothing beats the classic sax, bass and drums—the rest could be construed as just unnecessary, if not a little distracting. But these instruments are by no means offensive, and are played with same amount of taste and musicianship as with his saxophone.

Altogether, Rockford should be made aware of midweek nights at Big Cities. The atmosphere that Johnson creates hails back to the time when jazz and improvisational music were really the hippest thing to listen to live, and adds a sophistication to the area that has been long needed. Mark Johnson will be playing at Big Cities Lounge every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. There is no cover charge, which is ridiculous considering who’s performing, but there are no complaints around town. For more information, call Nino at Big Cities, 965-6206.

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