The last half of “Sonic Sanctuary Theme #1,” the opener to Allyn Johnson’s straightahead piano-trio album The Truth, may tell you all you need to know about his talent. The track is a paean to music, with a short theme, unusual chord progression, and lyrics sweetly sung by Christie Dashiell. The back half finds Dashiell, multitracked, repeating “sonic sanctuary” 20 times; each time Johnson, accompanying her on piano (with some light Fender Rhodes overdubs), finds a new way to play the changes.
That kind of to-the-smallest-detail ingenuity is what makes Johnson the District’s first-call jazz pianist, and makes The Truth an essential document of his music. It also makes the disc a primer in the virtues of close listening. The tunes (all, save two, originals) and arrangements are excellent, with affable energy and smart interactions between Johnson, bassist Romeir Mendez, and drummer C.V. Dashiell. The finer points, though, provide dimension.
Johnson begins Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You,” for example, by ramming through its theme toward a middle section that seems more interested in groove than in substantial improvisation. It suggests that Monk’s musical ideas are an afterthought—but Johnson is more cunning than that. His sparse phrases build toward and radiate from an off-kilter, recurring two-note bounce; it’s not a quote, per se, but it’s immediately recognizable as a Monk statement nonetheless. (Johnson saves the quotes for the outro, in which dreamy strains coalesce into fragments of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing.”)
It’s not all stealth allusions to jazz greats, though. “Seek the Truth” is pure Johnson, beginning with a complex five-part tune that suggests how hefty a process truth-seeking can be. That seeking is more reflected in the solo, though, with Johnson again working in small phrases that he repeats, varies, and deconstructs: calibrating, testing, probing. “Gratification” unfolds like a Harold Arlen standard, then unfolds melodically like a sonata in Johnson’s solo, i.e., developing the main theme. “Tune in A,” too, trades in sophisticated form (Johnson is, if nothing else, an ambitious composer) and detailed improv, though in this case the latter is less theme-and-variations than small, self-contained thematic structures—full micro-statements, lasting a few seconds each. This time Mendez gets in on the action, too: His solo bears similar mini-melodies, and with less space to stretch out than Johnson they come fast and furious, separated only by half-time turnarounds even shorter than the statements.
On the other hand, the detail-oriented listening approach that The Truth cultivates also reveals a flaw in the album: The low end is mixed too high. Mendez and Dashiell rev up into jams late in both “I Mean You” and “Tune in A,” and in both cases they soon fall into a muddy rumble. The effect is appealing in itself, evoking the sense of pure brawn on both players’ parts (a nice contrast to their taste elsewhere, like on the triumphant gospel-tinged “Adventure Theme”), but it confounds close listening. That’s vastly outweighed, however, by the rewards of scrutinizing The Truth.