What’s Hot With Jazz Guitar: 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 otherwise.

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: http://www.reverbnation.com/erictjohnsonmusic

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 in Jazz Guitar’ columns, audio clips of Doc’s playing, and many additional features. Doc endorse 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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