At 26 years old, saxophonist Greg Johnson already experienced a musical journey that takes some a lifetime — from joy into technique and study and practice and then back to joy. And, at least for one night, he will return to a stage in his hometown, where he first discovered his passion.
Johnson, who started playing gigs around State College at age 14, has been living in Los Angeles for five of the past seven years since he left home. He now works as a saxophonist, composer and teacher at the University of Southern California, where he has a teaching assistant scholarship and is finishing a doctoral degree. He spent a year and a half at Penn State before heading to the University of Northern Colorado for its jazz program, all the while expanding his network of musical contacts and playing gigs.
Johnson will return next week to play with the Zeropoint Big Band, a conglomeration of leading jazz musicians from central Pennsylvania.
“I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to come back and play with the band that raised me and for the people in town I care about,” Johnson said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.
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Johnson, a 2006 State College Area High School grad, joined the school’s jazz band in 2002 and grew to love the music.
Rick Hirsch, a Zeropoint founding member and an independent composer, arranger, saxophonist and educator, became Johnson’s private teacher and mentor. Zeropoint Big Band, a 16-piece jazz ensemble and a who’s who of regional jazz allstars, plays “modern” big band jazz: Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton, Thad Jones and Bob Mintzer as well as new music members have written. For 15 years, the band or its earlier version has played modern big band jazz at the Ale House every first Tuesday of the month.
“(Hirsch) taught me mostly improvisation,” Johnson said. “I used to walk into his house and we would just play anything, not necessarily a tune or something out of a book. We would just sit down and play together. It’s just a unique way of teaching to play free, just use your ear. It’s a very compositional way of thinking. You have to deal with the space, how you interact with an idea someone else is playing and figuring out what key is it in, whether are there certain rhythms.”
Since those jam sessions, Johnson has been able to play with big-name pop stars such as Barry Manilow, Robin Thicke and Patti Austin (who sang with Michael Jackson) along with national jazz notables, such as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Billy Taylor and Peter Erskine (the drummer for Steely Dan).
One of the most memorable for Johnson was Curtis Fuller, who played with John Coltrane.
“He was so supportive of what I was doing,” Johnson said. “I’ve had a lot of experience with older jazz musicians who have been on the road and are sometimes bitter. He gave me the biggest compliment I could ever get: He told me I reminded him of Coltrane. It was very unexpected.”
Johnson also has finished a third album under his own name (though he said he’s played on 40 or 50 others). He is independently releasing the recording, “City People,” which should be available in time for the State College show.
This time, when Zeropoint, known by some as the band that plays Duke Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite” annually at State Theatre, offers their monthly show at Ale House, Johnson’s music will be the feature, Hirsch said.
When Hirsch found out that Johnson, who has been working with iconic jazz composer Mintzer, would be returning this summer, he booked the gig.
“A big part of our constituency is younger, aspiring musicians,” Hirsch said. “For them, to see someone who not too long ago was in their shoes, we’re hoping that will inspire some of the up and coming musicians.”