Many consider the two "Eminent J.J. Johnson's" to be the most exceptional of his illustrious career. Volume 2 is more adventurous and forward-thinking while this volume is more grounded in the bop tradition. Johnson, as a composer and one of jazz's most influential trombonists, arguably put out his best albums in these volumes.
"The Eminent J.J. Johnson Volume 1" captures the 29 year old trombonist turning the jazz world green with envy. This was the album to announce the arrival of a trombonist whose music was so remarkable in magnitude that if it were visual, it could be soon from the moon.
An artist on his first recording session for Blue Note as a leader can't ask for a better rhythm section than the modern jazz quartet's section. Jimmy Heath is an underground name in jazz circles, boasting a robust and imaginative sound on the tenor. Clifford Brown, jazz's best trumpeter, eagerly was cutting his teeth at these sessions and on his way to lands never before seen or traveled. The result is an album of perfect music, fair in its radiance, with the leading trombonist standing tall in the center of attention.
The brisk (but not breakneck) Capri is a definition of "the sound of happy" in jazz, "Lover Man" sees Johnson's trombone gleam with silver and gold, and "Get Happy" gets a harmonically quartal uplifting with Johnson's soloing hurling him up to his carven spot on the throne of "jazz's most fluid trombonist."
The album is practically flawless. Johnson, a mature leader, gives generous soloing time to all of his bandmates. He balances the bright and romantic perfectly tempo-wise, and mixes three of his best compositions with three classic standards. Maybe Brownie fans will be disappointed that Brown doesn't sound "absolutely perfect," but give the man a break - he was 22 years old at this session and still stood tall with brilliance (people tend to get spoiled by his later excellence).
Speaking of Clifford, for the most dedicated of Clifford Brown fans, don't look at this. Go for the magisterial "COMPLETE BLUE NOTE AND PACIFIC JAZZ RECORDINGS OF CLIFFORD BROWN", which, while being extremely affordable, includes both volumes of Blakey's NIGHT AT BIRDLAND, EMINENT J.J. JOHNSON Vol. 1, CLIFFORD BROWN MEMORIAL ALBUM, and THE IMMORTAL CLIFFORD BROWN.
The album's best track is easily TURNPIKE. A bright rhythm changes melody with witty syncopation, tritone substitutions, and even the alternate cycle of changes that Bird introduced to the rhythm changes format earlier (this forces the soloists to have more fun with their blowing), Turnpike still stands as Johnson's best composition 54 years later. I love to play this song and get caught up in its intricacies.
In shadow lies this heaped gold - snatch it up and let the music hit you like a jackhammer. EMINENT J.J. JOHNSON VOL. 1 forges hot, red fires that burn with inextinguishable brightness.