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Organic by Henry Johnson

Organic refers to Henry Johnson’s devotion to the Hammond B-3 organ, which helped established a jazz sound all its own primarily through the 1950’s (with the innovations of Jimmy Smith and Wild Bill Davis) through the early 1970’s, when the B-3 began to lose its cachet. Guitar and saxophone were integral parts of the B-3 organ groups. While the organ players like Jimmy McGriff or Dr. Lonnie Smith reduced their recording activity and pursued other interests, other musicians starting in those group--like George Benson (early Jack McDuff & Dr. Lonnie Smith) or Joe Lovano (early Dr. Lonnie Smith)--moved on to even greater recognition. Johnson remembers the purity of sound from those organ groups, with their ability to rouse audiences into hand-clapping and swaying jubilation. He uses his current group, the Organ Express, to revive the sound that he began his career with. And he did it the "old-fashioned way" (now that we’re in the age of digital recording technology) by recording on tape without overdubbing or effects. And Organic, Johnson’s first CD on the A440 Music Group label, provides him the opportunity to reconcile his movement into smooth jazz with his more improvisational work on the bandstand when he performed live.

Introducing the CD by stretching out invitingly on the standard, "It Could Happen to You," one might think that Organic would be a classic jazz organ trio excursion through standards, jazz classics, original compositions and R&B numbers. And that would be partially right. But all of a sudden, the third track, "If It’s the Last Thing I Do," is a vocal, for goodness sake, with a late-night club-like intro. On the repeat of the first chorus, we find that Johnson himself has a fine voice, a fact that hasn’t been widely known until now. No less than Joe Williams encouraged Johnson to sing, coaching him on articulation and dynamics, and Johnson dedicates "A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry" to his mentor.

"If It’s the Last Thing I Do" comes with a double surprise, though, because Nancy Wilson joins Johnson in a duet, and she sounds entirely in her element, no doubt because Wilson started her singing career with Hank Marr on organ and Rusty Bryant on tenor sax. With an influential forty-year singing career behind her, Wilson makes the difficult sound easy, as she applies her trademark phrasing and narrative ability with lyrics. And "If It’s the Last Thing I Do" is included at the end of the CD as a bonus track which Wilson sings by herself with Johnson in guitar accompaniment. Wilson herself was dubious of Johnson’s singing abilities, but she finally was convinced when she heard him sing at Andy’s in Chicago. The second song that they sing together, "Hello Like Before," continues their vocal dialogue. The fun of the recording session becomes clear when Johnson and Wilson break out into laughter at the end of the song, putting an end to the romantic banter that they made up as they went along until the thread of the dialogue runs out. Wilson: "I just really wanted to have this little one-on-one conversation with you." Johnson: "You had something to tell me?" "Not really. You already know. I just wanted to see you face to face." "Oh no." "Oh yes." "Not in front of everybody." "Uh huh, in front of everybody. So, as I said before, it’s not quite like before." "What can I do? Can we just go back a little bit?" "There isn’t that much time! [Recording breaks down in laughter.] Make of that what you will, but both singers were at ease and enjoying the process, which carries over into the feeling of the rest of the recording.

Beyond the singing, which is the unexpected lagniappe on a guitarist’s CD, Johnson’s trio luxuriates in the joy of just laying back and playing. Johnson’s "It’s About Time" (oddly enough, the title of one of McDuff’s late-in-his-career CD’s), sets up the framework for some fine guitar and sax work after their unison first chorus. In contrast, "My Foolish Heart" presents Johnson’s ability to build a slow ballad with clearly stated melody and architectural improvisational lines, the final result being a detailed and solidly supported edifice of song. And "Blues for James and Dave" allows the trio to revel in the possibilities of the blues as they dig their heels into a groove and cook with the heat of the earlier Jack McDuff groups.

Organic itself suggests a naturalism of sound that grows logically and appealingly from the first down beat through deepening layers of depth. Johnson keeps all of the songs of Organic on track with consistency of groove and the ability to evoke a positive response from a wide spectrum of listeners.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Henry Johnson
  • CD Title: Organic
  • Genre: Soul / Funk Jazz
  • Year Released: 2003
  • Record Label: A440 Music Group
  • Tracks: It Could Happen to You, Know It All, If It’s the last Thing I Do, Cascavelo, Hello Like Before, It’s About Time, A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry, My Foolish Heart, The More I See You, Third Rail, It’s Alright with Me, Blues for James and Dave, The Scorcher, If It’s the Last Thing I Do
  • Musicians: Henry Johnson (guitar, vocals); Nancy Wilson (vocals); Peter Roothaan (tenor & alto saxophone); Chris Foreman (B-3 organ); Greg Rockingham (drums)
  • Rating: Three Stars
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