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James P. Johnson: Earl Hines, Pete Johnson and James P. Johnson: Reminiscing at Blue Note – 1939-43

Marc Davis By

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This is raucous jazz. The old-time honky-tonk kings knew how to make a piano roar.
In the beginning, there was the piano—if not in jazz generally, then definitely at Blue Note Records.

From the start, Blue Note founder Alfred Lion was obsessed with the piano. Blue Note's very first recordings, in 1939, were 19 tunes by boogie-woogie pianists Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons. You can hear them all on one fabulous CD called The First Day.

Later that same year, Lion recorded more piano favorites by all-time greats Earl Hines and Pete Johnson. A few years later, he recorded the father of stride piano, James P. Johnson. Together, these 16 recordings make up the CD Reminiscing at Blue Note.

If you're a fan of early jazz piano—especially boogie-woogie and stride—you will love Reminiscing. And if you're a fan of Blue Note, this is a must-have.

This is raucous jazz. The old-time honky-tonk kings knew how to make a piano roar. Granted, some tunes are slow and bluesy. And granted again, there is no shortage of latter-day keyboard piano virtuosos. (Or is that virtuosi?) Has the jazz world birthed any faster or more amazing pianists than Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson?

Still, there's something primal about listening to the old boogie-woogie and stride masters. The only shame is that Blue Note never recorded Fats Waller, the very best of the bunch. Alas.

Like all good jazz musicians, the early keyboard pounders knew how to take a basic beat and a few chords and perform magic —speed it up, slow it down, flip it, do acrobatic twirls, take it apart, put it back together and stick a solid landing, apparently without ever fumbling. As a pianist myself, I could never quite master the stride technique. I am forever in awe of those who can tame the beast.

This is old fashioned jazz in the best sense—definitely post-ragtime, but not yet bop. If your idea of a perfect Blue Note record is Art Blakey and an ever-changing cast of boppers, or maybe Norah Jones or Robert Glasper, think again. This is where the great jazz label began—in a very fun, funky place.

There's no need to be an old fart to enjoy this old music. Just listen and be amazed.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Availability: Not rare at all

Cost: $5 used, $11 new

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