'Back to basics': Local bassist, composer Max Johnk assembles jazz quartet

MOORHEAD -- Of all the different types of music local bassist Max Johnk has played in his life, jazz continues to be the primary genre shaping his artistic path.
Local bassist, composer and bandleader Max Johnk recently assembled The Max Johnk Quartet. Samuel Thomas Claeys / Empathic Studio

MOORHEAD - Of all the different types of music local bassist Max Johnk has played in his life, jazz continues to be the primary genre shaping his artistic path.

But the Fargo-Moorhead native doesn't simply perform double bass with a variety of groups in the area. He's often the bandleader who composes all of the jazz music they play.

Whether he's performing, composing or teaching jazz, the musician's main goal is to engage listeners and showcase the classic genre as an experiential art form that deserves to be appreciated in its own right.

"There's a very human thing about jazz that other music doesn't have," Johnk says. "With jazz, the sound is the expression. With more manufactured music (like pop), you're being telegraphed what to feel. Jazz doesn't tell you what to feel. You're either going to feel it or you're just not listening to it."

Johnk has led a jazz septet in the past, but recently he assembled The Max Johnk Quartet to "get back to basics as a composer" and challenge himself to create "full sound" in a small group without chord instruments like piano or guitar.

"Without a chord instrument (in jazz), you don't have anyone giving the other musicians a reference point (when they improvise), so there's a lot of empty space - which is cool - but it makes everyone have to play a little more stringently," he explains.

Other members of The Max Johnk Quartet include Joel Beseler-Thompson (drums), Chris Schuster (tenor saxophone) and Steve Wallevand (trombone). Over the past year, the group has been working on an instrumental jazz album partially funded by a Jade Presents Arts Partnership grant that will be released by the end of this year.

Teaming up

Johnk asked these particular musicians to join his quartet because "they all have very distinct personalities as improvisers," he says.

"As a band, when we are able to keep the group sound loose while still knowing our 'place' in the songs, we usually stumble on some unexpected things that I would never come up with myself when writing the music," Johnk continues.

Johnk started playing electric bass at age 14 and upright bass at 18. He earned his bachelor's degree in music from Minnesota State University Moorhead in 2011 and master's degree in jazz studies from Northern Illinois University in 2014.

In addition to being a jazz composer and bassist, Johnk plays regularly with indie rock band Wild Amphora and as a freelance musician.

When he composes jazz music, Johnk says his songs are "frameworks for improvisation rooted in the modern jazz idiom" but are heavily influenced by other genres he enjoys, especially classical, indie rock, R&B and extreme metal.

"I don't seek to make a collage or mishmash these styles," he says. "My goal is to incorporate the rhythms, textures and most importantly, the attitudes, of these other music (genres) into my own language while performing it in a jazz context."

Johnk describes the quartet's upcoming album as "pretty aggressive" music that is "meant to be listened to and moved to."

The group has encountered a few obstacles along the way, including budget constraints, scheduling conflicts and lack of their own recording space, but Johnk is confident the album will be out by the end of December.

Even though Johnk is looking forward to having a finished album, he says what people hear in the recorded version of his music isn't necessarily "the last word on it."

"(Jazz) is a different ethos," he says. "In a rock band, the groove is based on patterns. With jazz, the groove is based on pulse. You're generally playing the same thing a lot of the time, but it's not necessarily going to be in the same order."

Overall, Johnk is embracing the challenge and enjoying the opportunity to play with high-quality musicians.

"Making the same song markedly different each time we perform is probably the most satisfying thing about playing my own music with good improvisers."

For more information, visit maxjohnkmusic.com and watch for updates on The Max Johnk Quartet album at maxjohnk.bandcamp.com.

 

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit theartspartnership.net.