After moving to Fort Worth 15 years ago, one of my first questions for locals was, “Where I should go to hear the best live jazz in town?”
The advice was always the same.
Sardines Ristorante Italiano. Any evening. I made several trips to the dim and well-worn Cultural District restaurant. Onstage was an intense-looking pianist with gray hair. Johnny Case could pummel the grand piano to thunderous effect or pull back for light, lilting improvisations. His solos were melody-driven and reminded me of the great poet of jazz piano, Bill Evans.
It was only years later when writing about Case that I learned his personality is nowhere near as intense as his demeanor onstage. The veteran pianist takes each performance, whether it be in a rowdy bar or concert venue, with equal gravity because, to him, jazz is a serious artform that demands every bit of focus and physical exertion that one can muster.
In 2013 — gawd, it’s been almost a decade now — I spent the afternoon with Case and wife Kitty Case at their Eastside home researching a story I was to write about an upcoming concert by Johnny and his brother, guitarist Jerry Case. Johnny is known locally for jazz, but he and his brother have a long history of performing Western Swing, and my interview focused on that genre. We must have chatted for two hours or longer. Case is a trove of music history, and his 50-year career meant that most of his knowledge came from firsthand experience, not history books. In 2019, Case emailed me to see if I was interested in reviewing his latest album. Other Realms is his most recent release to date.
Case’s steady output of albums captures his artistic growth (both as a composer and improviser) since the release of his first in 1969. Other Realms offers several songs that showcase the veteran musician’s mastery of lyrics and arranging. “Song of Solange” features soprano Donna Thompson singing to a supportive sonic backdrop of Don Sowell on drums, Brian Warthen on upright base, and Case on piano. The lyrics for “Song of Solange” are based on the English translation of a passage in The Maids, the play by French dramatist Jean Genet.
The ballade opens with a rising swell of rich chords and bowed bass lines before the soprano sings, “The orchestra is playing.” Entering alongside the exuberant vocals, the drums deliver steady churns of brushstrokes that add more textural than percussive effects to the lyric-driven work. Thompson soon settles into a more sultry and velvety tone. Her careful attention to diction is clear throughout and adds to the storytelling feel. Case’s accompaniment follows her melodies note for note at times. During climactic moments, when she sustains long-held notes, Case whirls about, propelling the music forward. It’s a careful synchronization that one might expect more from a Schubert art song than a jazz number.
“Run Free” opens ominously with seemingly directionless trills by Case and intermittent rolls by drummer Joey Carter. The raucous cacophony is joined by Sylvester Jones on tenor saxophone and trumpeter Chris White. Rather than coming into harmonic focus, the work builds into a frenetic free jazz performance in which Middle Eastern scales, modal piano passages, and New Orleans-styled polyphony are layered into a ravenous and otherworldly listening experience.
“Love’s Bitter Rage,” a pathos-filled art song, stars mezzo-soprano Claudia Gonzalez singing Spanish translations of lyrics written by Case. “From Where Strays Never Call Home” boasts virtuosic passagework by the pianist, while “Lewis Worrell” is defined by a lengthy and moody bass solo by Byron Gordon.
Fort Worth has a rich jazz legacy, thanks to the notable Fort Worth legends who left our fair city for international careers (Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, Ronald Shannon Jackson) and also the many working musicians and composers who stayed here. Other Realms is a laudable showcase of our local jazz talent and a reminder that Case remains one of the most important and influential local jazz pianists of the past half-century, here or anywhere. — Edward Brown