Beginning with 1991’s Walk On
and continuing through two more Muse dates (all of which are currently out-of-print), a few sets for High Note and then 1998’s Riding the Curve
, guitarist Randy Johnston has championed his own take on the mainstream jazz guitar tradition, doing so with not much of any fanfare whatsoever. But with his second effort for Cincinnati’s J Curve label, Homage
, things just might start to change for the better. Johnston believes it to be his best effort yet and I’d be hard pressed to argue.
The premise here is quite simple- pick a few tunes and write a few more that have something to do with some of your influences as a player, gather a top-notch rhythm section, and then add a brassy horn section. Furthermore, hire a capable arranger in the guise of Rich Shemaria to put together the charts and you’ve got yourself a frontrunner. Johnston is, of course, the main soloist here and he carries the show with a warm and burnished tone and a coherent improvisational style that sagaciously uses space and patterns of tension and release. Also taking a few well-placed solos here and there are trumpeter Jim Rotondi, tenor man Eric Alexander, pianist Xavier Davis, and baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola.
The material is particularly strong and just a bit out of the ordinary to boot. For instance, Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel” acquires new life in a sweet version that barely resembles the original, while George Benson’s “The Cooker”, Kenny Burrell’s “Lyresto” and Dexter Gordon’s “Society Red” all benefit from the fact that they haven’t been performed to death in the past. Johnston’s own “Pat & Wes”, dedicated to Pat Martino and Wes Montgomery, features those mellow octaves endemic to both saluted players’ arsenals and “Cedar’s Place” has a beguiling structure and chord progression akin to Cedar Walton’s own aesthetic. Throughout it all however, Johnston maintains his own identity utilizing the tunes as a mere starting point. A more superior homage one couldn’t ask for, wouldn’t you say?