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James Johnson III: Full Circle

Mackenzie Horne By

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Pittsburgh drummer James Johnson III has spent the past several years developing his songwriting style—the results of that development can be heard at length on the drummer's sophomore solo record, Full Circle. Full Circle is not only more subdued than 2014's Between ( James Johnson III), but it is also more stylistically uniform. This record is refreshingly minimalist in its approach which compliments the overall progressive theme of the record. The content and the execution of that content suggests that, when distilled down to the barest minimum, life is a progression. Johnson's excitable nature reveals itself by means of his songwriting. Of the nine tracks featured on the record, five are original compositions. He has written with the goal of achieving a modern sound, one that is not overtly dominated by his work behind the kit, and in fact, Johnson's percussive accompaniment is one of the most valuable aspects of this record.

Esbjorn Svensson's "Seven Days of Falling" is the high point of the record in terms of Johnson's arranging chops. Compared to the original arrangement, the drummer's chart is radically simplified; he has forgone Dan Berglund's bass intro, streamlined the bass line, and supplanted that open space with Carolyn Perteete's hypnotizing vocals. These reductions and the space that results pack as much of a punch as the playing itself—this, essentially, captures the overall condition of the record. Johnson pulls triple duty on drums, percussion, and keyboard bass on his version of Kenny Kirkland's "Blasphemy." Johnson, having done his homework, pays homage to Kirkland by putting his own twist on the distinct triplets written into the original tune. Vocalists Matt Mason and Zuliakha Mason sing the lead with keyboardist Alton Merrell, leaving Sean Jones to add color with his strongest performance on the record. Track 7 is an original composition entitled "Movement." The track is something of a divergence from the tracks preceding it; while Johnson leaves a significant amount of space on all of his original compositions, "Movement" is packed to bursting capacity with keyboard bass, Ryan Tedder's drum programing, and echo effects. As distinct as the track is however, it remains very much in the thematic vein established by the first half of the record.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of Full Circle is Johnson's decision to include a version of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun." The drummer's arrangement is gorgeous; Mark Lucas' fingerpicking is sublime, Perteete's vocals are haunting, and bassist Claude Flowers adds structure to the form, avoiding unnecessary flourishes. It is, very simply, the misfit on the record and it lacks the proper context needed to ground it on the same plain as the other tracks. Qualms with this track aside, Full Circle is a beautifully made record. While it might not be emblematic of the direction of the overarching Pittsburgh scene, it does reveal Johnson's maturation as a practitioner and gives some indication of his trajectory going forward.

Track Listing: Full Circle; Rebirth; Metaphor; Seven Days of Falling; Cyclic; Blasphemy; Movement; Black Hole Sun; Big Brother.

Personnel: James Johnson III: drums, percussion, keyboard, keyboard bass, vocals; Zuliakha Mason: vocals; Matt Mason: vocals; Brett Williams: keyboard; Sean Jones: trumpet; Claude Flowers: bass; Clifford Barnes: keyboard; Carolyn Perteete: vocals; Paul Thompson: bass; Alton Merrell: keyboards; Lorenze Jefferson: French horn; Ryan Tedder: drum programing; Mark Lucas: guitar.

Title: Full Circle | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Self Produced

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