When most folks think of baby boom generation jazz guitarists, the names that invariably come to mind are Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, and John Abercrombie. But while these players have all made great strides forward, there's a second string of guitarists who, while moving forward in smaller steps, are equally worthy of attention. This list includes players like Vic Juris and Dave Stryker, who have significant bodies of work behind them that demonstrate a depth of vision and breadth of view that makes their relative lack of recognition not only curious, but distinctly unjust. Add to that list Randy Johnston, a guitarist with recording or performance credits with the likes of Etta Jones, Jack McDuff, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Houston Person, plus nine recordings as a leader since '91, quietly and gradually evolving with each successive release.
Johnston is firmly rooted in Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, early George Benson, and to some extent Pat Martino, as evidenced by a warm tone that occasionally leans to the dark, and a gritty, bluesy style that, like Dave Stryker's, seems to pervade everything he does. He also possesses a rich harmonic sense that allows him to construct solos with such vivid self-accompaniment that pianist Xavier Davis, who appears on five of the ten tracks on Johnston's latest, Is It You?, is not exactly superfluoushe's too fine a player for thatbut is certainly not missed on the pieces where Johnston pares things down to a trio.
It's intriguing that Johnston has chosen Davis and bassist Dwayne Burnoboth members of the more modernistic New Jazz Composers Octetas well as drummer Gene Jacksonknown for his work with contemporary artists including Dave Holland and Joe Lockefor this more mainstream effort. They lend a greater edge than one might expect on a program that blends standards with three of Johnston's own compositions.
On quartet pieces like the bright blues of the title track, Johnston remains mainly in linear mode, executing remarkable intervallic leaps and exhibiting a Martino-like tendency to create small motifs that gradually develop into something greater. On the more modal "The Jump Back"which is nevertheless still a blues pieceboth Davis and Johnston turn in confident solos whose conformity to form belies a greater freedom. Burno and Jackson sound like they've been working together for years, with Jackson, in particular, demonstrating an uncanny acuity, anticipating both soloists' every move. Jackson's solo over a powerful ostinato is the perfect confluence of rhythm and melody.
Johnston's seemingly endless flow of ideas, backed up by a group of accompanists with a distinctly modern approach, make Is It You? more than simply another mainstream effort, a small fish in a big sea. Instead, it refreshingly manages to avoid the obvious, retaining its reverence for style without ever sacrificing substance.
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