James P. Johnson

Carolina Shout [Collectables]

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James P. Johnson's Carolina Shout is an oddity made possible by multiplicities of licensing; a 2007 Collectables re-release of a CD originally released by Biograph Records, now owned by Shout Factory, in 1992, which was itself issued as an LP by Biograph in 1988 and later as a Musical Heritage LP. There is nothing musically different from one package to the next; all of these releases contain the same 14 songs, as pumped by Dan Wilke on an 88-note Melville Clark piano, even the LPs. The main thing that is different about this Collectables reissue is that the booklet is a bit more attractively colored in comparison to the pale black and white image used by Biograph, and the notes have been updated, though somewhat carelessly -- George W. Thomas' Muscle Shoals Blues is here identified as Muscle Shoal Blues.

As a collection, though, this does have some considerable value. Johnson's 1917-1921 piano rolls are some of the earliest documents of stride ragtime to be found anywhere, and his highly virtuosic renderings of W.C. Handy's Ole Miss Blues and Muscle Shoals Blues are treasured interpretations of pieces otherwise only recorded rather dimly by dance bands and military units by the time Johnson got to them in 1922. It does contain Johnson's one and only recording of Charleston, his most famous piece; Johnson did not cut that selection for the phonograph.

However, these aren't the best edited piano rolls, full of little slips and other surprises, and by twenty-first century standards Biograph's recording is rather thin sounding and nasal -- rather like a down and dirty MIDI file of a piano roll, though not quite THAT bad. We've been spoiled -- since 1988, very high quality piano roll-to-CD reproductions have been done on the behalf of George Gershwin, Jelly Roll Morton, Zez Confrey, and a few others. While Biograph/Collectables' Carolina Shout is still serviceable as a means to get a basic idea of what James P. Johnson's piano rolls sound like, to experience Johnson as a player, the best vehicles for that are found among the many phonograph recordings he made and not the rolls. Moreover, this will remain the case until someone with such expertise decides to take on the case of Johnson's rolls, document them, edit them properly, and record them well.

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