James P. Johnson


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What must it have been like for James P. Johnson to have taken young Thomas Waller under his wing, teaching him everything he knew about piano, watching him evolve into a brilliant composer and internationally famous performer, then to have him pass away suddenly at the age of 39? The best answer to this question lies within a series of Waller tribute recordings made by Johnson in late 1943 and early 1944. They are a striking example of grief and shock transformed into relaxed, enjoyable music. The duets with drummer Eddie Dougherty, recorded on June 8, 1944, are particularly satisfying, especially "My Fate Is in Your Hands." What's the best James P. Johnson session of all? Poetically, musically, emotionally, and fundamentally, the "New York Orchestra" session of June 12, 1944, is in fact unparalleled. Frankie Newton never sounded more elegant and sincere than he does during these beautiful sound etchings. Albert Casey, Pops Foster, and once again Eddie Dougherty participate in perfectly balanced communion with the other two men. A precious honesty materializes as Johnson sings the words to W.C. Handy's "Hesitation Blues" in a warm, hoarse voice. For dessert, Johnson ended the session with a marvelous reading of Scott Joplin's masterpiece of 1909, "Euphonic Sounds." All six sides were issued on 12" 78-rpm records in an album bearing the title New York Jazz. They reappeared years later on a cherry-red vinyl LP Stinson reissue, and some of the tracks show up on various compilations. Classics 835 is a gold mine containing the very heart of James P. Johnson's artistry. Note that certain other reissues of this material -- "Euphonic Sounds" in particular -- have suffered from hideous sound quality, even on CD. Here at last Johnson's best material can be properly heard. The Sidney DeParis Blue Note Jazzmen session of June 21, 1944, just happens to be the next leg of Johnson's chronology. After three hot stomps including nearly five minutes of "Ballin' the Jack," the listener is able to reflect upon "The Call of the Blues," possibly the strongest playing that this trumpeter ever blew onto a record. It is a fine finish for one of the best traditional Harlem jazz compilations ever assembled by anyone.

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