JJ JHNSN is a 4-piece doombop group (a term coined by the band) from Boston, MA. Their first record, Trog, is a blistering exploration of bebop, metal, and free jazz. The album was included in Dan Shea’s 2018 New England Music That Demands to be Heard. I met up with composer, bandleader, and trumpet player Alex Quinn and saxophonist Raef Sengupta at Pavement Coffee Shop on Gainsborough Street last week. After indulging my desire to take a look at their scores, they spoke with me about JJ JHNSN’s music and future plans.
Jackson Albert Mann: When I saw that you were calling yourself a ‘doombop’ band, I knew that I needed to check out your music. What was the idea behind that tag?
Alex Quinn: I’m really glad that tag was useful! It was sort of a half joke. We were trying to think of a better term for metal-jazz and came up with doombop, which we thought sounded hilarious.
Raef Sengupta: Yeah. I don’t think doombop is actually a thing. Though, I’d like it to be!
JAM: So what’s up with the band name? I know that JJ Johnson was a big band and bebop trombonist. He played on one of those Miles Davis Walkin’ or Cookin’ albums. But the only reason I know of him is because I did some transcriptions of solos from those albums when I was at Berklee. Is there a reason that you chose that name?
AQ: Well, there was a reason, I guess, but it was more of an anti-reason. I chose the name because it was a subversion of my own musical vision for the band. It was meant to be confusing in a playful way.
RS: Yeah, it’s definitely intentional. The fact that we chose the name of a jazz artist who, unlike Miles Davis, is probably only known by specific people who went to jazz school gives the band in-joke quality that’s reminiscent of band names and song titles in vaporwave. So, JJ JHNSN is basically vaporwave for people who went to jazz school.
AQ: It’s dank memes for jazz school kids.
JAM: One thing I find interesting about your music is how you build songs by stretching and contracting short motifs.
AQ: I feel like that’s part of my (laughing) very limited batch of compositional techniques. I usually take one small idea and do as much as I possibly can with it. Coming up with enough material is difficult so it’s useful to try to get a lot out of these short motifs. Also, most of the tunes have a two part contrapuntal relationship between two motifs. When I’m writing, I think of the band in two blocks: the horns and the rhythm section. Each block is performing a motif that, as you mentioned, is transforming throughout the song. So as these motifs transform so does the relationship between them. Sometimes it will branch off into three-parts but most of the time it stays within the two-part framework.
RS: We’re a jazz group so improvisation is a lot of what we do. The score and the two-part motifs give us a framework, especially regarding time, and within that structure we have a lot of room to be spontaneous and interact with each other. What we play live is probably 20 percent the score and 80 percent messing around with it. For instance, at this part (pointing to a section of the score) Alex and I could basically play anything because we known that Zak and Andres will come back in (pointing at another section) right here.
JAM: I’ve listened to a lot of jazz groups that take influence from extreme genres like metalcore, grindcore, and math-rock. Many of them use tritone harmonies in their horn parts to replicate the dissonance they’re hearing in those styles. However, you use minor 2nds and minor 9ths. Could you speak on that a little?
AQ: Tritones sound great on guitar because you can hear all of the overtones. But when you’re working with two different instruments, especially if they have very different timbres, those nice overtones aren’t there. So intervals like 2nds and 9ths sound a lot better. I also don’t really think of these harmonies in terms of dissonance. It’s less about the dissonance itself and more about highlighting the aggression of the melodic lines.
RS: I also think the dissonant intervals emphasize the rhythmic quality of the melodies. The dissonance lets the notes get out of the way of themselves so that you can really hear how the motifs are working rhythmically.
JM: The aural aesthetic of the band definitely seems to be influenced by more extreme styles of music. The first time I listened to your record, I was reminded of Painkiller, John Zorn’s grindcore collab with Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris. Was there a specific style or group that you drew from when you first composed these?
AQ: I’ve checked out that project but the grindcore aesthetic wasn’t what I was going for. I had been listening to a little bit of Meshuggah. The rhythmic elements of the tunes are definitely inspired by that and, like them, I was trying to do as much as I could in 4/4 time. I was also listening to some math-rock. But, to be honest, the sound of the record is mostly just an amalgamation of a bunch of different things that can’t necessarily be quantified.
RS: I’d also add that our sound is very influenced by our peers at New England Conservatory. We have our own little NEC scene and the music that we hear our friends play has a big effect on what we do.
JAM: A huge part of this record’s sound is the really incredible guitar work. Is he playing a 7-string guitar?
RS: He’s insane. Nobody plays like Andres.
AQ: That’s true. He’s actually playing an 8-string. And his whole idea for this group was to try to get the dirtiest sound without using any distortion or effects.
JAM: Yeah! It sounded like it was clean the whole time.
AQ: It was.
JAM: A few times he seemed to be playing so hard that it was becoming distorted.
RS: He also does a lot of crazy bends.
AQ: Yeah, to be honest, (chuckling) I don’t know how he gets a lot of the sounds that he does. I know that he boosts the low end on his amp and that’s how he’s able to emulate the sound of a bass on the low 7th and 8th strings. But I’m not totally sure how he does most of the other crazy sounds.
JAM: I’d like to know more about your approach to improvisation. There’s a ton of chromaticism in your solos but it’s not what I would call jazz chromaticism. You’re not approaching chord tones or tensions. It’s more like a serialist method of exploring the sound of the chromatic scale.
AQ: I wasn’t thinking of it from that perspective but I definitely see how it could be interpreted that way. My approach was a little more sporadic. Like you said, I wasn’t thinking of any particular key. My main intention was to make my improvisation as spammy as the composed parts of the music. I was also thinking about what not to play. Keeping jazz cliches out of your improvisation while studying jazz at school is a challenge in itself.
RS: I think it’s interesting that you bring up serialism because now that I’m reflecting back on this record I was definitely coming from that perspective. I was playing around with methods of exploring modules, pitch sets, and register changes without reference to a specific key. I agree with Alex that we were intentionally trying to keep jazz cliches out of our playing. But I’d also like to add that our drummer, Zak, is well-versed in extreme music and his playing during the improvised sections pushed us to explore things outside of the typical jazz style.
JAM: Many of the improvisations seemed completely free. I was really impressed with how good both of you were at maintaining interest during these ‘free jazz’ sections, especially since neither of you used any effects.
RS: I think the reason we can maintain that interest is context. We play together so much that it gives us a familiar backdrop and this allows us to explore in a way that has more intention and direction. I’d listened to free jazz, specifically Eric Dolphy, before I came to NEC. During my first year here I tried to play free music with a few different people. But I wasn’t able to develop a confident approach to free music until I had that stable context.
AQ: Yeah. I was in the same boat as Raef.
JAM: So, does JJ JHNSN have upcoming gigs? Any new releases on the horizon?
AQ: We’re playing my senior recital at NEC on April 12. That’s open to the public. We have some new songs that we’ve been working on and we’d love to record a new album.
RS: We’ve also been thinking about re-recording some of the songs from Trog again because they sound very different now.
AQ: Uh, (laughing) part of the reason it sounds so different is a lack of remembering what I originally wrote. Andres, specifically, is constantly changing what he plays and trying new things, so he’s been a big part of how the tunes have evolved. But, in regards to gigs, we’re definitely thinking about starting to book in Boston and NYC soon. We’ll keep you posted.
Jackson Albert Mann is an activist, writer, and musician from Boston, MA. He is an Adjunct Professor of Music at Bunker Hill Community College and a Teaching Artist at Berklee College of Music’s City Music Program.