Marcus Johnson

In Person: Live at Blues Alley

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With his combined law and M.B.A. degree from Georgetown and his own company, Three Keys Music/Marimelj Entertainment Group, LLC, Marcus Johnson is not only a jazz pianist but also an entrepreneur, so it's no surprise that he uses his sixth album and first live recording to showcase other artists signed to him. Saxophonist Jaared Arosemena (who performs as Jaared) sits in with Johnson's band and gets a big share of the solos, the better to give attention to an artist whose own album, Hangtime, was released on Three Keys shortly before this one. And singer Yah Zarah, with a Three Keys album in the can, guests on the sole vocal number, a version of "My Funny Valentine" that shows her to be more interested in sound effects than coherency. Also, like the CEO he is, Johnson makes a point of diversifying, giving his listeners a little of everything along the jazz-blues-funk continuum. Listen to the opening tune, "Doc's Groove" (previously heard on 1997's Inter Alia), and you'd think this was a fusion session, paced by Lorenzo Sands' plucked electric bass groove. Other tunes are played in a more straight-ahead manner, though one is more likely to think of Bob James or Joe Sample when listening to the piano work, rather than Thelonious Monk. And it would be easy to catch "Sandy Point" on the radio and imagine it was being played by Bruce Hornsby. Significantly, "Dukin' It Out," from 1999's Comin' Back Around, is a tribute to George Duke, not Duke Ellington. "It's what we call metropolitan smooth," reads a tag line in one of Three Keys' ads, and that's a fair description. The playing is meatier than your typical smooth jazz, but Johnson is determinedly eclectic, a businessman who wants to please as many people as possible.

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