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Jef Lee Johnson, Sonny Thompson and Michael Bland: News From the Jungle

Phil DiPietro By

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A quintessential slab of guitar-based, acid-drenched, New Power Generation/ Blackrock Coalition crossbred funk brought to you from the recording studios of Minneapolis... starring a now officially, ridiculously, inexcusably under-recognized guitar god/genius/freak from Philadelphia, all coming to you through the good graces of... France?

The most intriguing—bizarre, even—musical by-product of Vivendi's corporate devouring of Universal has been the spending of significant francs on some super-funky and super-modern releases with connections to the Minneapolis area. These include the new Happy Apple release, Youth Oriented (the French, evidently, are also involved over at Columbia with drum King, Dave 's other little band, the Bad Plus), Michel Portal's sprawling 3-disc collaboration with the folks involved here (augmented by Tony Hymas and Vernon Reid) entitled, Minneapolis, and this News From the Jungle.

The reason? French producer and part-time Minneapole Jean Rochard, helmsman of the Paris- based label, Nato Bear, and now an attaché of Universal who, evidently has a real nez for the real nouveau shit.

On the guitarist front, we have Jef Lee Johnson (yes, it's spelled right!), whose name-recognition factor has suffered from downright poor distribution of his recordings for long enough. Jef's been tearing it up in the jazz and pop worlds for twenty years now (he toured with McCoy Tyner in 1981), with employers as diverse as Ronald Shannon Jackson, David Letterman (yes, he was in the World's Most Dangerous Band for a minute post-Hiram), George Duke, D'Angelo, Roberta Flack, and Erkyah Badu. Due to Rochard's efforts, we have the inspired pairing of Jef with ex-Prince NPG section Sonny Thompson and Michael Bland- both big men who deliver big sounds!

The approach? A trio record built around Duke Ellington's jungle series of compositions (think "Black and Tan Fantasy" era) crossed up with takes on the current state of the "jungle." Evidently, Johnson was the last guy brought into the project, but he's largely the reason it winds up hanging together.

Within the confines of just the Ellington compositions, for instance, there's not another guitar- slinger on the planet who could give you equally virtuosic takes in such stylistically disparate territories. These include a measured, authentically contemporary-country claw-hammered trip on the "A Train" over to an ephedrine-laced, funk-vamp powered, jazzrock version of "Take the Coltrane." The latter sports an ideal distortion-thickened tone for the sequence of powerful sheets of legato lightning Jef discharges over Bland's athletic sprays and splays and Thompson's unwavering pulse. Exposing this side of Johnson's playing in even more raw a context, the bass is stripped away, pairing it with just drums implying a power- embellished blues, on the Rochard collaboration, "Jass."

Thompson and Johnson have world-class singing chops as well, and all variants are explored. Thompson sings sweetly in duo setting with Jef's acoustic on "In This Life" and then solo on Bacharach's (!) "This Guy's in Love With You," accompanying himself on upside-backwards strung left-handed (as he strings the bass) acoustic guitar. Johnson's vocals phrase behind the beat on a lugubriously languid reworking of his own "Jungle," which happens to fit like a glove into this concept, especially following the spooky slow-mo take of Duke's "The Mooche." All bending and creaking, slippery but exacting notes, "Mooche" has Johnson blending in acoustic on a second track, eventually overtaking his strat-tone with an acoustic gypsy-jazz solo. Another don't-miss showcase is Michael Bland's "Land Each Limb" which, along with the rest, heralds the drummer and bassist as a new rhythm section formidable in the international jazz community. Who else is ready to make the jazz jump from Paisley Park?

It's the mid-tempo burner "Little Leo" that serves as the best example of what the power in this New Generation of Power Trio is about, burning more incandescently in its middle than either end, showing how these three can build on each other and then, let go. With some across-the pond press and European dates booked, like now, here's hoping this three-way gets to continue on, and that Universal recognizes that we in the States are also hungry for such innovative and provocative internationally-inspired recipes fashioned from such classic, exploding-with-taste, all-American-grown ingredients.

Track Listing: 1) Open Season (Johnson), 2) Take the Coltrane (Ellington), 3) Insomniac Dance (Nato), 4) The Mooche (Ellington), 5) Jungle (Johnson), 6)The Dreamcoat (Nato), 7)Jass (Johnson/Nato), 8)This Guy is in Love with You (Bacharach), 9)Diving in F (Thompson/Nato), 10)Drop me of in Harlem (Ellington), 11)RSJ (Johnson/Nato), 12)Land Each Limb (Bland/Nato), 13)Little Leo (Johnson/Nato) , 14) In this Life (Thompson/Nato) 15)Take the A Train (Ellington)

Personnel: Michael Bland-Drums, Jef Lee Johnson-Guitar, Sonny Thompson-Bass,Vocals, acoustic guitar on 8, Jean Rochard-Producer

Title: News From the Jungle | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: Verve Music Group

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