In spite of his versatility as a composer and strength as a pianist, much of the music of James P. Johnson has only been sporadically performed and recorded in the years since his death in 1955. One of the greats of the Harlem stride piano school, Johnson was also a formidable blues piano player and wrote music for Broadway, including a number of hits that are still played with some regularity. Guitarist Marty Grosz, a very young 80 years old when he led these 2010 sessions, put together an all-star band that has a similar interest in timeless tunes from the first few decades of the 20th century, covering 14 songs written with a variety of lyricists, though many are played as instrumentals for this CD. But the guitarist doesn't approach these works as museum pieces, he takes them into new territory by putting his own stamp on them. The group includes pianist James Dapogny, clarinetist Dan Block (who doubles on bass clarinet), multi-reed player Scott Robinson (heard on soprano, C-melody, and baritone saxes), trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, bassist Vince Giordano (who doubles on tuba and the infrequently heard bass sax), and drummer Arnie Kinsella. The love for the music is immediately apparent, as the players blend perfectly in the ensembles and quickly pass the spotlight around, broken up only by Grosz's hilarious vocals that likely take a few liberties with the lyrics, especially in "I Was So Weak, Love Was So Strong." Dapogny's stride piano chops are a highlight of "Alabama Stomp," while Robinson's mellow soprano sax is complemented by Kellso's sassy, muted trumpet in the lyrical ballad "Old Fashioned Love." "If I Could Be with You" is another Johnson standard, while Grosz's vocal is simultaneously sincere and comic. Dapogny switches to the dainty sound of the celeste for the subdued introduction to "Charleston," one of Johnson's normal show pieces for the marathon cutting contests when pianists battled in Harlem clubs, though Grosz takes the band into an uptempo Latin-flavored stride setting when the full band is added. The vaudeville flavor of "Stop That Dog" proves infectious, with Giordano prominent in the mix and a campy group vocal refrain following Grosz's own vocal. Grosz's detailed liner notes about the background of each song are an added bonus. Marty Grosz has provided ample proof that great music never dies, so long as it is played by musicians the caliber of the ones he assembled for these valuable sessions.
AllMusic Review by Ken Dryden