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Rhythm In Every Guise

Steve Johns with the Bob DeVos Organ Trio


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Bob DeVos' Organ Trio is a prime example of a band that possesses a recognizable sound yet resists facile categorization. Since 2005, along with organist Dan Kostelnik and drummer Steve Johns, the Northern New Jersey-based guitarist has played numerous live gigs and recorded two compact discs, Shifting Sands and Playing For Keeps, both released on Savant Records to wide acclaim. The group doesn't necessarily invite comparison to the fashionable, John Coltrane-influenced, Larry Young-Grant Green-Elvin Jones Trio from the mid-1960s. Likewise, DeVos and company can't be pigeonholed into the crowd pleasing soul-jazz produced by some of the classic Hammond B-3 organ stylists who employed the guitarist for decades: Richard "Groove" Holmes, Brother Jack McDuff, and Charles Earland. DeVos' trio has managed to forge its own identity, in part by referencing instead of wholly embracing these models.

A portion of the band's strength lies in DeVos' and Kostelnik's distinctive voices as soloists, as well as their empathetic interpretation of the leader's original compositions and arrangements of standard material. The excesses employed by some of their predecessors—repeating a phrase ad nauseum, the clichéd use of blues locutions, or holding a screaming chord for a seemingly indefinite period of time—are conspicuously absent. DeVos and Kostelnik are passionate musicians who don't flaunt their ardor. The music's visceral impact is cumulative, rather subtle, and often lies in the details.

Steve Johns, the third member of the trio, is every bit as important as his colleagues. On the cusp of age fifty, Johns has developed into a significant jazz drumming stylist. Shifting Sands, Playing For Keeps, as well as a June 27th live set at The Turning Point Café, offer numerous examples of his ability to swing hard and consistently. Gleefully seizing his own place in the music, Johns drives the band and offers telling details along the way. There's absolutely no uncertainty or wasted effort in his drumming. The momentum he generates tends to obscure how much he has going on at any given time. Most importantly, even when Johns' plays loudly, he never detracts from DeVos and Kostelnik.

Throughout both of the records, Johns utilizes the drums and cymbals in something approximating an equal partnership. Every stroke is meaningful and has a definite purpose. Changes in dynamics are frequent and unceremonious. A strong pocket is derived not only from the steady pulse of the ride cymbal, but from the manner in which he juxtaposes accents and patterns on the snare, bass, and tom toms. On DeVos' "Lost And Found" (Shifting Sands) solo, boisterous hits to the bass drum help shape the music, yet they stay out of the guitarist's way. Interacting with Kostelnik on "Mojave" (Shifting Sands), there's a real sense of both textural and rhythmic development in the manner he moves from the broad click of rim knocks to snare and bass drum combinations. There's nothing uniform about the way Johns chops away at the snare behind DeVos during "And So It Goes" (Playing For Keeps). He constantly finds different ways of making the strokes, varies the dynamic level, and intermittently inserts brief patterns to the tom-toms.

It was positively exhilarating to hear and watch Johns throughout the live Turning Point Cafe set comprised mostly of material from Shifting Sands and Playing For Keeps. Two things stood out which aren't quite as apparent on the records: An extroverted, articulate ride cymbal ruled the roost for most of the performance; and, regardless of the type of groove, Johns' execution on the entire drum kit was uncommonly clean and precise. Throughout DeVos' solo on "So In Love," the set's opener, the pulse remained steady but the details were in a state of flux. In contrast to the ride's prominence, Johns' chipping away at the snare evolved into hard jabs mixed with chomping bass drum beats. Instead of the customary clap of the hi-hat on beats two and four, his use of the pedal was ongoing but not uniform. When Johns left the ride to make brief, traveling fills to the snare and toms, there was a flexibility that made a fine contrast to the rock solid quality of his time.

Taken at a medium tempo in three-four time, "Body and Soul" is one of DeVos' noteworthy treatments of the American Popular Songbook. Swinging the trio in a way that was simultaneously precise and loose, Johns made unerring decisions without any signs of hesitation. The push and shove between his snare and bass drums animated Kostelnik's solo, and the ride cymbal evolved from a hard ping to a broad, singing hiss. Stuttering two-handed fills to the snare momentarily broke the cymbal's spell, and a solitary stroke to the top tom-tom stood out.

Although Johns sometimes included a crunching back beat on Devos' slow-to-medium tempo "Shifting Sands," the ear never became accustomed to any single aspect of his drumming. During DeVos' and Kostelnik's solos, he integrated occasional light cymbal crashes, punched the bass drum at key points during the tune's bridge, and offered relaxed traveling between the two tom-toms as well as a busy, convoluted fill.

The New York City area is chock full of trapsters who can readily handle the demands of a group with organ and guitar, yet it's hard to imagine someone taking Johns' place in DeVos' Organ Trio. Several years ago, I had the pleasure of catching a few performances by DeVos, organist Gene Ludwig and the late drummer Billy James, a master at driving an organ-based combo. Sitting just a few feet away and listening to James at the peak of his considerable powers was unforgettable. I feel the same way about Johns' drumming with DeVos and Kostelnik, particularly the set at The Turning Point Café. By utilizing a personal vocabulary to create muscular and taut grooves as well as rapidly fluctuating commentary across the drum kit, Johns brings something fresh and vital to the trio's music.

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