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The University of Hartford

The Randy Jonston Trio- Riding the Curve
J Curve Records
by Chuck Obuchowski

     In this post-Ken Starr era, I feel compelled to offer a confession up front: I really don't like the sound of Hammond B-3 organ. Yeah, I know there are so many great players, Jack McDuff, Charles Earland, the two Jimmys, just for starters… and how about its importance to the blues? Funk? Groove music? Maybe I just encountered too many shopping mall schlockmeisters in my youth, middle-aged guys in ill fitting suits who tried to "jazz up" bad pop tunes so Mom & Dad would buy the kiddies their very own keyboard.
     And just what does any of this have to do with the latest release by Randy Johnston, a guitar player? Well, the organist on this date is Joey DeFrancesco, already a legend at 27. He and Randy have worked together a fair amount, but in this trio setting he is often front a ncenter, and Joey's not one to hold back, even on a ballad. And yet- surprise!- I enjoy this disc, including Joey's playing, perhaps because he usually avoids the cliché B-3 sounds.
     Add Idris Muhammad-- one of the most soulful drummers alive--to the mix, and you've got the ingredients for a very potent jazz brew. Having Chicago's Little Giant onboard for two cuts is an extra-special treat, too. 70-year-old tenor titan Johnny Griffin sounds quite spry on Cole Porter's "All Through the Night'," taken here at breakneck tempo. His own "You've Never Been Threat" epitomizes relaxed swing, as the four playfully spar with one another for a 10-minute blues apparently inspired by Wayne Shorter's classic "Footprints."
     Although Griffin's irrepressible energy is absent elsewhere on Riding the Curve the threesome manages to keep things enticing on its own. On an R&B classic like "High-Heel Sneakers," for instance, Muhammad showcases his New Orleans roots with some of the funkiest second lines beats you're ever likely to hear. Johnston and DeFrancesco respond with ebullient solos that, if there were any justice in the current American music marketplace would make this a jukebox and radio hit. It's no wonder that Johnston apprenticed in bands led by jazz populists like Lou Donaldson and Lionel Hampton.
     With the recent revival of lounge music, composers like Burt Bacharach are experiencing newfound popularity. Johnston, who admits to a love of simple melodies, has chosen to cover one of Bacharach's catchiest songs, "Wives and Lovers." Here, the guitarist's fluid lines are reminiscent of one of his acknowledged influences, Wes Montgomery, who also recorded this composition.
     Although he hails from Detroit and now makes, his home in Brooklyn, Johnston spends two days of every school year right next door to WWUH, teaching at the Hartt School of Music. His first introduction to Hartt was through his former University of Miami roommate, Thomas Chapin. Johnston pays tribute to his deceased friend with "For Thomas," a perky number which recalls the saxophonist's joie de vivre; it also slips in some allusions to Coltrane's harmonic masterpiece "Giant Steps." DeFrancesco takes yet another inspired solo turn, but, alas, not even his wealth of ideas can sell me on the sound of the B-3.
     J Curve is a new label based in Cincinnati. Its founder, Dal Rabiner, seems to have a two fold mission in mind- to present new jazz talent and t odraw greater attention to improvising guitarists. Look for new CDs by pianist Aaron Goldberg and vocalist Lenora Zenzalai Helm, two artists certainly derserving of wider recognition. Randy Johnston is already planning his next J Curve recording, an octet project set for release next year. For more details, check out the J Curve website at www.jcurverecords.com

Copyright©WWUH: November/December Program Guide, 1998

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