Marcus Johnson

Urban Groove

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Even if the title of Marcus Johnson's latest disc Urban Groove isn't as fanciful as that of his 1998 effort Chocolate City Groovin', the thread is clear: Like his chief influence George Duke, he's all about rhythm, writing nice melodies but always in the context of solid funk. That said, there's a certain irony in pegging the most appealing cuts from Urban Groove as those that digress from the typical pop-funk trappings. "Sandy Point," for instance, keeps the rhythm relaxed so that the lush piano hook -- so reminiscent of Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is" -- can shine through seductively. Even better, Johnson really hits pay dirt when he goes the porch-rocking blues route on "Down Home." Over a boogie-woogie piano foundation, Kevin Levi's sax -- simply serviceable to Johnson's keyboard lines on so many other cuts -- honks happily along with Johnson's chipper Fender Rhodes musings. The disc closes with Johnson stripped to the bone emotionally, accompanied only by an acoustic piano and quiet synth embellishments on "The Puzzle." Elsewhere, he keeps things grooving happily, though less remarkably. The undeniably catchy sax-synth hook of the opening track, "Pavilion," wears thin after repetition, while "18th Street Loungin'" is playful Joe Sample-flavored fluff. "Plush" has a cool, hypnotic groove with the contrabass playing of Walter Cosby and the drumming of Eric Valentine, but Johnson's meandering Rhodes melody doesn't build to any sort of heartfelt payoff.

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