No Jazz fan can tarry long in Chicago without entering Eddie Johnson’s orbit. Even at 78, the veteran tenor saxophonist remains one of the busiest, best–known and most sought–after players in the Windy City and environs, and if his conspicuous talents aren’t more easily recognized elsewhere it’s only because he has chosen to blow his own horn infrequently on record ( Love You Madly
is Johnson’s second album as a leader, the first in almost two decades). Years ago, the one and only Duke Ellington tried to recruit Johnson for his orchestra, but Eddie chose to remain with Louis Jordan because that gig paid better. Much later (in 1964), Johnson made an (uncredited) appearance on Ellington’s album of songs from Mary Poppins.
Needless to say, the self–effacing saxophonist’s career might have taken many another turn had he accepted Duke’s offer, but that was then, this is now. Listening to Johnson’s graceful, almost casual Prez–based improvisations, one can’t help thinking how comfortable he would have been alongside such Ellington stalwarts as Hodges, Webster and Carney. But that wasn’t to be, and Johnson left the music business in the ’50s, when rock ruled the land, returning in 1979 when the urge to play became too strong to resist. The album at hand proves time and again that Eddie made the right decision. He still has the chops, and any misgivings about the depth of his soul are quickly expunged on the opening track, most appropriately Ellington’s “Love You Madly” (Johnson closes with Ellington’s “You Dirty Dog” and also performs the Ellington/Hodges tune, “Wanderlust”). While much of the material is taken at a canter or slow trot, Johnson shows on Neal Hefti’s “Whirly Bird” that he is unfazed by swifter tempos (and on “Eyes of Love” and “Who Can I Turn To” that he is a master balladeer as well). Being the astute musician that he is, Johnson knows full well the value of a compatible and supportive rhythm section, and has encircled himself with seasoned pros in the persons of Young, de Haas and Hughes. Young’s solos are models of taste and elegance, while de Haas and Hughes are as dependable as twin anchors. A superior quartet session, long overdue but well worth the wait.
Track listing: Love You Madly; Gravy Waltz; Eyes of Love; My Buddy; Trombonio–Bustoso–Issimo; Wanderlust; This Love of Mine; Whirly Bird; Who Can I Turn To?; You Dirty Dog (64:38).