Since his arrival in San Francisco in 1997, Ontario-born trumpeter Darren Johnston has become a vital part of the city’s diverse musical landscape—as composer, bandleader, and trumpeter. Johnston has collaborated with the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, Myra Melford
, and Marcus Shelby; recorded under his own name and with the United Brassworkers Front; and been named one of Down Beat’s “25 Trumpeters of the Future.”
Johnston’s newest ensemble, the Nice Guy Trio, was formed nearly two years ago with accordionist/composer Rob Reich and the versatile bassist Daniel Fabricant. The trio immediately became a force on the local scene and was honored with a SF Weekly Music Award for Best Jazz/Blues Band. Their yearlong residency (called “Root Exchange”) at the Red Poppy Art House in the Mission District, featuring the trio with a revolving cast of stellar guest artists, resulted in the flowering of the distinctive Nice Guy concept and, eventually, the recording of their extraordinary first CD, Here Comes the Nice Guy Trio. The new disc, produced by Johnston along with Reich and engineers John Finkbeiner and Myles Boisen, will be released November 17 by the new San Francisco label Porto Franco Records (distributed by City Hall).
“I have known Darren’s music from seeing him perform with his quintet, and at some shows with local musicians like Kally Price, Meklit Hadero, and Marcus Shelby,” says Porto Franco vice president Peter Varshavsky. “I love the stylistic variety between his projects. When we started Porto Franco, I was very anxious to work with him, and as it turned out, the Nice Guys’ album was at that point almost complete. We are thrilled to be involved in promoting this great music.”
The Nice Guys’ sound, though steeped in jazz, embraces a wide array of styles, drawing from klezmer, blues, funk, calypso, country, Balkan, and Hindustani music. “We all have really broad taste and come from different musical backgrounds,” says Johnston. “The trio is all about finding common ground. No matter what style we’re coming from and referencing, we have our own way of playing together. We can go anywhere and still sound like us.”
Originals from each of the trio members are performed on the new CD alongside compositions by Charles Mingus (“Fables of Faubus”) and Ornette Coleman (“Folk Tale”). The Nice Guys’ guest artists include clarinetist Ben Goldberg, tabla player Sameer Gupta, violinist Dina Maccabee, cellist Alex Kelly, pedal-steel guitar maestro David Phillips (who’s featured on the Mingus track), and Aaron Kierbel on dumbek and assorted drums.
Voted a “Rising Star” on trumpet in the 2009 Down Beat Critics Poll, Johnston was also treated to the “Hot Box” multi-review format in that same August issue for his quintet recording The Edge of the Forest. The disc received four (out of five) stars from each of the four reviewers. John Corbett pronounced Johnston “someone to watch, on trumpet, of course, but as a composer and bandleader as well,” while Paul de Barros admiringly wrote that “Johnston’s all over the horn, smearing and sliding, but with crystal-clear ideas.”
Here Comes the Nice Guy Trio, likewise, is an auspicious debut by a group that bears watching—and serious listening. Darren Johnston, Rob Reich, and Daniel Fabricant will feature the music of the new CD in a show at Yoshi’s San Francisco on Monday, November 2. They’ll be joined by guests Ben Goldberg, David Phillips, and Sameer Gupta, with others to be announced.