The Original James P. Johnson
goes a long way toward summing up the early history of jazz piano. The early jazz singer Ethel Waters stated, " All the hits you hear, now as then, originated with musicians like James P. Johnson . . . the rest of the hot piano boys . . . just followers and protegees of that great man, Jimmy Johnson."
This superb disc of Johnson piano solos was recorded by Smithsonian Folkways, from 1942 to1945. There is a stately documentary quality to the disc as Johnson literally plays through much of the early history of jazz piano. Johnson's importance is such that no history can do justice to the subject without coming to terms with the man who mastered and developed so many piano styles while garnering the respect of the best of his peers.
The Original James P. Johnson includes 18 compositions and 2 alternate takes. Of these 18 compositions Johnson composed 12, ranging from his 1914 "Daintiness Rag" to such classics as "Snowy Morning Blues" to his classical/jazz composition "Yamekraw - A Negro Fantasy." In addition, two W.C. Handy blues are included, a Scott Joplin rag, and a Gershwin tune, "Liza." The dates of the Johnson compositions range from the mid-teens up through the early 1940s.
Smithsonian Folkways has done a beautiful job of transferring the original recordings from the acetate masters, 78's, and analog tape safetys. The sound is excellent and the disc is long - over 73 minutes of music. Johnson's playing is precise and sophisticated; his compositional sense is pervasive in solos that unfold from an inward sense of structure. It's not often one can hear a master so consciously summing up an extraordinary career. Mr. Johnson offers a lesson for all who have interest in the primary sources of jazz, especially rags, and blues. Also, Johnson is widely considered the creator of stride piano, while in his day he was considered the style's finest player - the whole story is here for the listening.
In short, James P. Johnson is who early jazz pianist had to come to terms with simply because in many ways his commanding presence was the mainline of early jazz piano. He was the musician Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, Teddy Wilson, and Art Tatum had to constructively react to on their way to becoming major pianists themselves; it is difficult to imagine a more meaningful compliment to the master, Mr. James P. Johnson. Highly recommended.
Personnel: James P. Johnson, solo piano.