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Richard Leo Johnson: Language

AAJ Staff By

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The revival of Blue Note Records has been little short of phenomenal when one considers that the legendary label was moribund by the early 1980's until various believers like Bruce Lundvall applied their resources and genius to the challenge of revival. One part of the jazz juggernaut that Blue Note has become lies in the visionary leadership of Lundvall, as the artists on the label attest. The other part lies in the fact that Blue Note is allowing the music to lead the marketing, instead of forcing the music to conform to the marketing. The result is that Blue Note has been on top of the trends as they develop, such as jazz jam or Cuban jazz. Indeed, Lundvall and associates were responsible for distributing some of the early Cuban recordings by artists like Gonzalo Rubalcaba in spite of U.S. State Department's restrictions on import of the product.

This preamble leads to the fact the Richard Leo Johnson, the latest in a string of astounding Blue Note talent, doesn't fit any preconceived notions of what jazz should be, or what the label should produce. Self-taught, Johnson's love of guitar, rather than his adherence to "correct" technique, has led him to produce two albums that offer innovative use of the instrument—not to mention colorific sounds that evoke events or atmosphere without reference to any identifiable style.

Johnson's first album, Fingertip Ship , introduced his style on a solo and technically proficient basis, as Johnson imitated sounds of nature or combined disparate musical genres such as Middle Eastern modes with kudzu-draped blues. Blue Note now has extended Johnson's languages by combining his energetic guitar leadership with unconventional instrumentation. Even more unconventional is that fact that the accompanying musicians added their tracks after Johnson had recorded the entire album by himself. In other words, the accordionist, say, reacted individually to Johnson's tape separately from the oboe, and the engineer combined the unrehearsed results into a final track of ingenious, but unusual, collaboration, to say the least.

Like drummer Matt Wilson, Johnson is interested in recalling real-life situations through his music. While Wilson evokes memories of Midwestern auctioneers or even a creaky porch swing, Johnson mystically describes primeval spiritual ceremonies or the deeply personal recollection of the suicidal immolation of his great uncle.

Even the familiar tunes are assimilated into Johnson's stringed vocabulary of floating and unceasing motion. Thus, "Happy Talk" sounds like nothing from "South Pacific," but rather it provides a root for the growth of Johnson's flowering elaboration on the suggestions inherent in the tune. "Sketches Of Miles" reminds the listener of Miles Davis' and Gil Evans' mastery of impressionistic jazz, but Johnson's version assumes subdued imagery without the Flamenco flavor of "Sketches Of Spain."

Like all other originals who remain uncategorizable, Richard Leo Johnson will leave listeners in awe even as they scratch their heads in an attempt to pigeonhole his music into a pre-existing category. Go ahead and try. But Johnson follows his own muse, and in the end he must be accepted on his own innovative terms.

Title: Language | Year Released: 2000 | Record Label: King Records


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