What's Hot With Jazz Guitar: Eric T. Johnson

by Doc Dosco

This week we feature guitarist Eric T. Johnson.

I usually don't review CDs, however in this case I will make an
exception. Guitarist Eric T. Johnson has recorded a CD featuring the
music of the largely forgotten jazz artist Herbie Nichols.

This is a truly captivating CD. The tunes are extraordinary and the
playing superb. Eric is not one for dazzling pyrotechnics on guitar. His
playing is measured and tasteful, but more than that, he has a great
sense for pulling unusual yet striking melodic lines. A bit dissonant in
spots, a bit avante garde perhaps, certainly a bit bluesy and bopish in
places, but all in all a whole lot of fun to listen to. And this
particular style of jazz (on the far side of Monk in many ways) has a
certain undeniable charm.

Eric sent me this CD. I get them sometimes and never make it all the
through a complete listening. In this case, I found myself playing it
again and again. Not so much to hear any sparkling virtuosity, (although
there is plenty of great playing on the CD) but to listen to the music
-- both the marvellous tunes and the striking solos. Very refreshing, I
must say. So do yourself a favor. Go buy this CD.

Liner notes by Eric T. Johnson on his new CD:

Herbie Nichols (b. 3 December 1919, New York City, d. 12 April 1963) was
a true Jazz original. He failed to gain the wide recognition and
prosperity of many of his equally talented contemporaries due to the
unusually challenging and probing nature of his music, as well some
self-imposed obstacles, such as his reluctance to associate with drug
users (he turned down a job with Billie Holiday for that reason). He did
work with the likes of Illinois Jacquet, Lucky Thompson, and Arnett
Cobb, but made his living mostly by playing in Dixieland bands. He died
prematurely of Leukemia at the age of 43. Alfred Lion had the wisdom to
record many of Herbie's compositions for Blue Note in 1955 and '56, and
thanks to Michael Cuscuna at Mosaic Records, these recordings, including
alternate takes and previously unissued originals, were re-released in
1987, and again in a Blue Note box-set in 1997. This recording includes
my transcriptions of some of those tunes, as well as some from a 1957
recording on Bethlehem Records.

Herbie was something of a gentle giant. At 6'4" it certainly wasn't his
physical stature that caused him to be largely unnoticed by the
listening public. And he did have his admirers. Mingus, for one,
encouraged him, and according to Herbie himself was instrumental in
getting him his Blue Note contract. Quotes from his friends in the
Mosaic Records booklet paint him as kind, sweet, intelligent, diffident,
very funny, and very honest. Bassist/cellist Buell Niedlinger, who
certainly should have been used as a resource by Mosaic, remembers how a
tear would form in Herbie's eye when a bandleader would refuse to play
his original music. Nichols, according to Niedlinger, was also homeless
for many years. After gigs he'd hang out at people's houses until
daylight and then sleep on the subway. It's not an overstatement to say
that he led a tragic life. Some may feel it's doing him a disservice by
focusing on his hardships, but they were real.

I first discovered Herbie Nichols in A.B Spellman's book "Four Lives in
the Bebop Business," which also includes portraits of Ornette Coleman,
Cecil Taylor, and Jackie McLean. I was intrigued by the story of this
nearly forgotten artist. It wasn't until 7 or 8 years later in the early
90's that I actually heard his Blue Note recordings. My first impression
was positive, but I was a bit overwhelmed. Herbie's trio recordings can
be difficult to process. His music is structurally challenging in every
way. The sectional format is often unusual, including his use of drum
intros and outros. His harmonic voicings and progressions are often very
ambiguous and foreign to the traditional dominant cadences of Jazz
standards (Monk's approach is downright familiar in comparison). His
melodies are unique in their placement and intervallic structure.

And then there is his improvisational approach, which is personal - by
no means "bebop" in the Charlie Parker/Bud Powell tradition. What I've
realized since then is that Herbie's improvisational concept was
pre-bebop in that he saw the "blowing" as a development of the melodic
content of the piece - part of the composition, not an opportunity to
stretch out and show off his licks. There is no running of the changes.
As Duck Baker points out in the liner notes of his brilliant solo guitar
recording of Nichols' music, "Spinning Song," Herbie's improvisatory
approach leaves many listeners with the false impression that his pieces
aren't good vehicles for improvisers. In this recording I hope to show

My cohorts came at this music as neophytes for the most part. I had to
prod them into Herbie's world, but after a while they began to like it.
Even accomplished Jazzers have to go through growing pains when dealing
with Herbie's music, as with Monk's. The respective languages are quite
different (anyone who offhandedly refers to Nichols as being "like Monk"
just isn't listening), but both styles refuse to let the players fall
into traditional patterns. I feel we've succeeded in keeping true to the
spirit and intent of Herbie's music, while still doing our thing. I
believe Herbie, who stubbornly maintained his artistic individuality,
would have wanted that above all. - Eric T. Johnson (Nov. 2002)

Sound clips from the CD:


Eric's Homepage with dozens of PDF lessons, charts, transcriptions and MP3s:


Doc Dosco is a jazz guitarist, composer and audio consultant living in
Los Angeles, CA. His website is located at http://www.docdosco.com,
where you can find more information on the 'What's Hot with Jazz Guitar'
columns, audio clips of Doc's playing, and many additional features. Doc
endorses Heritage Guitars and is a featured artist on their website. He also
endorses the new Pignose Valve Tube Amps -- great for jazz (and anything else!)

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