James P. Johnson

1943-1944

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Rich and rewarding, this collection contains one powerful Blue Note blowing session and 16 beautiful solos recorded for four different labels. Two sides waxed for Moses Asch during the summer of 1943 were unavailable for many years. This interpretation of "Snowy Morning Blues" is more relaxed and inventive than the familiar Decca version. "J.P. Boogie" takes the barrelhouse tradition by the tail, redefining an entire idiom. Moving into November, "Backwater Blues" revisits a duet that Johnson recorded with Bessie Smith back in 1927. Running at an accelerated tempo, "Carolina Balmoral" is the essence of what critics came to call stride piano. "Gut Stomp" is less frantic but just as tight. Johnson appears to have been deliberately engaged in setting down a compendium of fundamental jazz piano works for Blue Note. The session of December 15th is a perfect match for the preceding installments. "Mule Walk Stomp" is particularly joyous and the haltingly slow "Arkansas Blues" dates back to piano-roll days. "Caprice Rag," played at an insanely accelerated tempo, was published back in 1914. "Improvisations on Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" is Johnson's creative response to a popular trend. By coincidence, these four sides were recorded on the very day that Fats Waller passed away at the age of 39. Two solos recorded three days later convey Johnson's emotional state as he grieved over the loss of his good friend. "Blueberry Rhyme" is an unparalleled masterpiece of private reverie. First recorded in 1939, its reappearance on this occasion seems to indicate the intense personal nature of this delicate opus. "Blues for Fats" is like a prayer uttered in a state of numbness. James was still in shock. Beginning in April of the following year, he set out to record an extended series of piano tributes in the form of songs composed or made popular by Fats Waller. Another very constructive way to cope with such a crushing personal loss was to get busy and lead a few ensembles. The Blue Note session of March 4, 1944, resulted in four of the very best group recordings ever made by this pianist. There's no topping the front line of Ben Webster, Vic Dickenson, and Sidney DeParis, and Big Sid Catlett was exceptionally solid on that day. The slow drag "Blue Mizz" is followed by a shower of adrenaline called "Victory Stride." "Joy Mentin'" is a relaxed stroll through the blues and "After You've Gone" cooks at a rolling boil.

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