Attending to such individualized tics is the do-or-die imperative of any tribute album, and it is why this one chugs along with that strange mix of sensitivity and punctuality prevalent in so much of Nichols’ music. Financial constraints and jittery record executives prevented the pianist from ever realizing his music on a larger scale than the comfortable piano trio format, but here Johnson expands to a quintet - all without any keyboards - offering a fresh perspective on his compositions. Thankfully, the group approaches them with a relatively serious, straightforward stare - the "tunes" are complex enough and as yet unknown enough to demand the respect of playing them by rules Nichols himself established. As such, they leave a lot of wiggle room: Johnson features everything from Scofield-like reverb to clean cut acoustic, trumpeter Phil Grenadier and tenor man George Garzone trade duties on different tracks - the latter even taking a rollicking turn on soprano for "Crisp Day" - all while bassist Bob Nieske and drummer Nat Mugavero simmer with a steady beat. The latter is particularly attractive on his drum breaks, so critical to the dynamics of a Nichols composition, orienting the musicians amidst the alternating improvised and written sections, adding dialogue in more explicit terms. The solos, while not as intricately wound to Nichols’ melodic universe as one might hope for, do for the most part logically evolve from it and expand it with a notably modern one.
Still, perhaps the most complimentary thing one can say about this debut for Johnson as a leader - and a sincere compliment it is that this group of accomplished musicians neither emasculates nor over articulates, but rather settles into a lived-in but frequently surprising space. At once reverential and rascally, they investigate that strange "serene neurosis" which Nichols manifested in his music: an avoidance of the overplayed "laughing to keep from crying" in favor of a rock-steady, smiling stare into the sun to force the tears that would inevitably arrive otherwise. This is in the sinister, yet laid-back unfolding of "Every Cloud" (brings rain? or sits in sunny skies?), the descending dance of "Chit Chatting," or the way a single repeated note resolves into a rolling phrase in the theme of "It Didn’t Happen" (and who’s asking?). It is a tricky world to visit, one that is unique to Nichols, and one that takes musicians that are more than technically proficient but are also empathetic stylists. That Johnson and company repeatedly find that bittersweet spot on this record is a testament to both their talents and their dedication.