James P. Johnson

His Best Recordings: 1921-1944

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James P. Johnson's Harlem stride piano recordings have been compiled and reissued both systematically and haphazardly. Interested parties may choose between the strict timeline approach used in the Classics Chronological Series and various samplers that either focus on one aspect of his career (player piano rolls on Biograph for example) or the grab-bag technique employed by labels that provide a casual overview of his life and work. Released in 1996, Johnson's entry in the useful Best of Jazz series hits the ground running with his first phonograph records dating from 1921, and follows a trail of historic accomplishments up through December of 1943, when he waxed "Over the Bars" (an updated version of his classic "Steeplechase Rag") for Bob Thiele's Signature label while warming up for a Yank Lawson blowing session. Johnson was first and foremost a gifted pianist, so it's no accident that more than half of the performances herein are piano solos. Recorded for Columbia in June of 1939, "If Dreams Come True," "A-Flat Dream," and the lovely "Blueberry Rhyme" are certainly three of his greatest solos on record, and their inclusion here adds ballast to an already impressive playlist. The second version of "Carolina Shout" was recorded by Jimmy Johnson's Jazz Boys back in 1921 and has all the charm of records of that vintage by James Reese Europe, Wilbur Sweatman, W.C. Handy, or Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds. "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle" is performed by Perry Bradford's Jazz Phools; Bessie Smith sings the "Backwater Blues," and Ethel Waters applies her cabaret charm to "Guess Who's in Town?" In March 1928, Johnson made a series of chamber jazz recordings with pipe organist Fats Waller, cornetist Jabbo Smith, and multi-instrumentalist Garvin Bushell as the Louisiana Sugar Babes. Their amazing treatment of "Persian Rug" (with bassoon solo by Bushell) is most appropriate to this collection for the beauty of the interplay between Johnson's piano and Waller's pneumatic organ. The 1939 ensemble tracks ("Who?," "After Tonight," "Old Fashioned Love," and "After You've Gone") are magnificent examples of Johnson's powerhouse presence as a member of trumpeter Frankie Newton's swing band (with clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow and alto saxophonist Pete Brown) and as leader of his own Orchestra with a lineup that included trumpeter Henry Red Allen, trombonist J.C. Higginbotham, tenor saxophonist Eugene "Honeybear" Sedric, and master percussionist Big Sid Catlett. Like any installment in the Best of Jazz catalog, this is an excellent introduction to the piano artistry of James P. Johnson. Other labels have covered his output with greater thoroughness and precision, and anyone smitten with his matchless technique may choose to devote extended periods of time to studying his complete works in chronological sequence.

Track Listing

Title/Composer Performer Time
1 2:31
2 3:11
3 2:44
4 2:57
5 3:09
6 3:41
feat: Bessie Smith
8 2:38
9 3:31
feat: Ethel Waters
11 3:02
12 3:04
13 3:12
14 3:26
15 3:08
16 2:32
17 3:10
18 3:10
19 3:20
21 4:24
22 2:26
blue highlight denotes track pick