Randy Johnston is the real deal, a consummate Jazz Guitarist equally adept at playing bop, modal, and blues lines like nobody’s business. And on his new Mel Bay DVD release Randy Johnston: Live at the Smithsonian Jazz Café Randy does just that with an hour and fifty minutes of the most burning Jazz Guitar playing around.
Starting off the set with a blistering bunch of unaccompanied solo Jazz lines, Randy heads into the Hendrix tune “Up From the Skies”. I had first heard this tune performed by the vocal group Rare Silk and until checking out this DVD I never knew that this was a Hendrix song although you couldn’t tell from the way Randy puts his personal stamp on the tune. Intense lines, superb chord soloing and quick octave playing makes this tune a wonderful start to an exciting performance.
The next three tunes “Green Curry”, “David’s Theme” and “Fringe Benefits”, are all penned by Randy and feature so much inspiring guitar work that he could have ended the set there and everyone would have been satisfied musically. Highlights include near endless streams of blazing runs (you really have to watch this cat play for the full impact), harmonic twists and turns, modal excursions, Wes style octave playing and more chord-melody soloing. Just awesome stuff which will have your fingers constantly working the remote’s back button to catch it all again and again.
As you can probably tell Randy is a total burner when it comes to line after line of articulate and well-versed improvisation. But he’s also a sensitive player which comes through in his performances of “Here’s That Rainy Day”, “Seems Like Times Are Changin’”, “If Ever I Would Leave You” and “Body and Soul”. Lush chord voicings alongside thoughtful chord-melody arrangements add an extra depth to Randy’s musical soul and his solo on “If Ever I Would Leave You” is text-book material that should be transcribed by anyone seeking commanding jazz-language skills.
Another major facet to Randy’s playing is his chordal knowledge which runs very deep I imagine. The chord-melody intros to “Here’s That Rainy Day” and “Body and Soul” are just beautiful pieces of work, especially “Here’s That Rainy Day” which is his only solo arrangement on the DVD. Randy takes a thoroughly introspective approach to this tune opening up with a few well slapped strings high up on the fingerboard resulting in some cool harmonics from the chord shapes he is playing further down the neck. And his “Body and Soul” opening arrangement is delightfully poignant.
Of course it wouldn’t be a Randy Johnston performance without a large helping of the Blues and Randy doesn’t disappoint. In nearly all his playing there is an element of the Blues which serves to complement the intricate and oft-times complex lines Randy creates in his improvising. Randy’s own “Fringe Benefits” and the Charlie Parker standard “Billie’s Bounce” get full attention as Randy whips out blues enhanced lines like the master that he is. And check out the harmonized head he pulls out on “Billie’s Bounce” for a distinctive take on this classic tune. It’s no wonder that Randy has been the first call guitar player for many international artists like Etta James, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Tom Harrell and Joey DeFrancesco to name but a few. Very cool!
Now although this is definitely Randy’s gig he doesn’t go it alone as Tom Pietrycha and Tony Leone, bass and drums respectively, provide committed performances and unfaltering support alongside Randy with both getting loads of solo space to shine. These are players you definitely want by your side and Randy seems very pleased that they are there.
Randy Johnston: Live at the Smithsonian Jazz Café is, in my most humble of opinions, a DVD that you definitely need to add to your collection. Not only is it a great way to see a tremendous Jazz personality up close, but it is a wonderful use as an instructional media. The closeness that the camera allows, along with being able to watch Randy’s fingers on the fret-board over and over again at anytime, allows the novice and even advanced player to analyze aurally and visually how a true master lays it out…which is a definite plus in my book. Enjoy!