James P. Johnson

1938-1942

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Each volume in the James P. Johnson chronology is packed with music of great poetic depth. This particular installment opens with a pair of trio sides by "Pee Wee, Zutty and James P.," a vestigial core left over from Pee Wee Russell's Rhythmakers as heard on Classics 671. These intimate interactions make for exceptionally fine listening. Then there's the amazing JPJ Orchestra of 1939, resounding with an unforgettable front line of Red Allen, J.C. Higginbotham, and Gene Sedric, who with Al Casey was borrowed from the Fats Waller & His Rhythm band. Anna Robinson's vocal on "Harlem Woogie" is gloriously rowdy, with a scat that was all her own. "Hungry Blues," a selection from a politically charged stage show with words by Langston Hughes, is a beautiful statement against segregation and inequity, invoking "...a brand new world, so clean and fine, nobody's hungry and there ain't no color line...." The show was called De Organizer. It dealt with the plight of Afro-American workers as they attempted to unionize. Anna Robinson was remembered by Milt Hinton as a merry libertine who partied hard. Strung out on narcotics, she was brutally murdered in an alley. These are the only recordings Robinson ever made. An alternate version of "Hungry Blues" is historically valuable, although it's little more than a footnote to the other take. Ruby Smith, the niece of Bessie Smith's husband, tackles two helpings of the blues. "Backwater" was Bessie's eyewitness response after experiencing firsthand the devastation caused by floodwaters in the lowlands. James P. Johnson was Bessie's collaborator when the song was first recorded in February of 1927. This might be Ruby's best recorded performance. She couldn't have found a better backup band -- in fact she never did. Five days later, six solo piano inventions were recorded, using melodies composed by Johnson: "If Dreams Come True" is the very apex of what critics dubbed Harlem stride piano. "A Flat Dream," which is to say "Dream in the Key of A Flat," is one of Johnson's most attractive creations. It is spiritually connected with "The Dream (Slow Drag)" and "The Boogie Dream," both recorded in June of 1944 (see Classics 835). This particular version of "Blueberry Rhyme" is pure magic. The pianist's heart is wide open, and listeners are permitted access to a very personal private sanctum. Only one instrumental was recorded during the session of March 9, 1939. On June 15 the band reconvened with only slight adjustments in personnel, and this time the ratio was inverted. Four solid instrumentals, among the best that Johnson ever presided over, were followed by one vocal. "Havin' a Ball" opens with a rare example of Sidney Catlett operating a timpani drum. This is almost a pun on the title, as if an enormous inflated rubber ball has come bouncing into the room.

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