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Plas Johnson & Friends

Jim Santella By

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Plas Johnson & Friends
Founders Hall
Orange County Performing Arts Center
Costa Mesa, California
November 25, 2005

Plas Johnson and his all-star band of Los Angeles jazz veterans brought a session of standards with them for their Orange County performance: standards that rang true with the historic perspective of their collective years of payin' dues on the road and off, in order to further their artistic goals. These are the songs that we can always rely on. They represent the tried and true formula, and it works just fine. The leader's mellow tenor saxophone purrs with a delightful tone that lends itself to these familiar tunes.

Nearly 60 years in the jazz performance arena have given Johnson a feel for what his audience wants. This night, in the quaint intimacy of Orange County's best jazz spot, he brought his audience a mixture of jazz and blues that traced his career from New Orleans to Los Angeles with plenty of stopovers along the way.

In 1951, Johnson left The Crescent City to go on the road with Charles Brown. After a stint in the Army and formal training at the Westlake School of Music in Los Angeles, he settled in L.A. for a career that afforded him many opportunities in the studio. His is the tenor saxophone solo that brought us Henry Mancini's original "Pink Panther theme. It's Johnson's piccolo that stands in for the bird call on Bobby Darin's hit "Rockin' Robin. With trumpeter Harry "Sweets Edison, his tenor provided the signature music for The Odd Couple TV series. There's more, but what he does best is to carry the banner for jazz and blues, and to remind us that it's got to have soul.

The soulful funk of a James Brown tune, the swinging groove of a Count Basie song, and the mellow reflections of a Duke Ellington piece brought out the best from Johnson's arrangements. The program included standards such as "My Romance, "Time After Time, "I'm Just a Lucky So and So, "Jumpin' at the Woodside, and Phil Upchurch's own "You Can't Sit Down. With Johnson in this cohesive affair were: guitarist Upchurch, baritone saxophonist John Stephens, pianist/organist Art Hillery, bassist Richard Reid and drummer Garrick King.

Vocalist Spanky Wilson joined the band for eight more selections that allowed her to interact with the band as they interpreted jazz and blues with passion. In an aside, she related to the audience her own friendship with Esther Phillips, and it was evident from the start that she shared much of the heightened emotional persuasion that Little Esther carried with her everywhere she went. They closed with "Goin' Down Slow, a Bobby Blue Bland song that allowed Wilson and the band to turn it loose.

Plas Johnson & Friends brought a marvelous concert performance to Southern California's Founders Hall. As long as veteran jazz and blues artists such as this continue to bring good music into our neighborhoods, we'll always feel the beat driving us as we work, play, or just relax.

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