You don't hear many multi-horn jazz bands these days. They're challenging, unprofitable, and a bit of an anachronism. Yet some musicians remain enamored of the old big-band style. Local guitarist Mike Irwin Johnson is one such character. Classically trained, he's been a workhorse in the jazz scene for roughly a decade. Two years ago Johnson got inspired to write arrangements for a band with four horns and a four-man rhythm section, which he called 8 Legged Monster. (He's now expanded it to include six horns, and traded his piano player for vocalist Karina Denike.) It's a cast of heavyweights — among them trumpeter Mike Olmos, trombonist Danny Grewen, reeds player Rob Barics, drummer Jaz Sawyer, and the ravishing Denike, who's best known for singing in San Francisco ska band Dance Hall Crashers. Each band member has star power in his own right, and each contributes a unique personal history to 8 legged Monster. The result is exciting.
Johnson makes no pretension of packaging 8 Legged Monster for a modern audience. Instead, he highlights the band's roots, even to the extent of designing the CD jacket for Vol. 2 to resemble an old record jacket. Vol. 2 includes only two standards, "Saturn" (arranged to sound a lot like Sun Ra's early recordings of the tune) and "Mood Indigo." Otherwise, it's all Johnson originals — but you wouldn't know that without reading the liner notes, since his music is so steeped in older swing and bebop traditions. Johnson typically writes with specific players in mind: "Olmos Def" features fat sounds and technical bravado from Olmos, while the lovely "Goodbye" shows Denike at her most vulnerable.
To be so grounded in tradition and yet sensitive to your band members, is quite difficult. But Johnson pulls off 8 Legged Monster with flair. (Pursuance Records)