Richard Doron Johnson: Battle Grounds (2010)
In a year that saw some lionized piano trio records, Richard Doron Johnson's debut, Battle Grounds, might be the overlooked gem.
Johnson is hardly a household name, even within the small, tight circle of jazz fans. His website reveals stints with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Thelonious Monk Institute, as well as gigs with bassist Ron Carter and guitarist Russell Malone. An iTunes search found only two other recordings besides this one, both as a sideman for Danish tenor man Christian Winter, and Johnson's blog has not been updated since 2008. Self-promotion is clearly not Johnson's bag.
However, Battle Grounds is worthy of some serious listening. All but two of the nine songs are originals. At a time when musicians can pour all of their technical virtuosity into making music that is impressive but not necessarily appealing, Johnson has created something noteworthy: an album of music that is a genuine pleasure to hear.
This isn't to say Johnson lacks any technical chopsquite the contrary. These songs impress by being well-crafted, sophisticated, and emotionally rich, all at the same time. This is a record that would be expected from an artist in his later years, with maturity and taste trumping exuberance and bravado.
Of course, Johnson can cook; the title track gives ample evidence of that. But the album offers so much more, with a broad range of tempos, rhythms and styles. Some of the melodies are just downright catchy; the kind of jazz tunes you might actually find yourself humming the next morning, on your way to work.
The bouncy "Rhythm to Run" features improvisation utilizing a single key melody line, recalling the sparse statements of Count Basie. It is clear that Johnson really understands the value of playing a few well-chosen notes over playing all of them at once. There is not a single moment of Oscar Peterson/Art Tatum baroque overkill on this date. Johnson even pays homage to his musical ghosts with a few sly quotes. A fragment of "Rhapsody in Blue" floats past during the Latin tinged "Ramsiepamsie." Th record covers a lot of ground, with bits of stride, Latin, hymns, blues and hard-bop, but it hangs together remarkably well as a whole, and there's not a single throwaway track..
Steeplechase CDs are not always the best sounding digital albums out there, which is a shame because, based on their vinyl, most are very well-recorded. Happily, Battle Grounds is an exception, sounding as good as any other piano trio album heard over the last few years. If this debut is any indication, Richard Doron Johnson is a pianist with a bright future.
Track Listing: It's Been a Long Hard Road; I Should Care; Ramsipamsie; I Sit and Then I Wonder; Pent-up House; The Green Room; Battle Grounds; Dreams From My Father; Rhythm to Run; Hymn Like.
Personnel: Richard Doron Johnson: piano; Kengo Nakamura: bass; Jason Marsalis: drums.
Record Label: SteepleChase Records