Richard Leo Johnson,
(Blue Note, 2000)

This is one of those CDs that make merely human guitarists throw their picks in the wastebasket and take up knitting. I hadn't heard Johnson's first CD (a condition soon to be remedied), so Language was all the more astonishing as a result.

"Hip Hop Zep" is a jaw-dropping first track, which finds Johnson on 12-string, backed up by electric bass and washboard, which add a lot of percussiveness to the mix. Even so, Johnson takes the high ground melodically and rhythmically. He's all over the fretboard, but it's not showing off chops as much as it is music making at its most creative. This would be interesting stuff to listen to played by a tuba band. Johnson takes an extreme turn with "Sweet Jane Thyme," an ethereally haunting instrumental, given added resonance by Paul McCandless's English horn and the rich underpinning of the bass of McCandless's Oregon bandmate, Glen Moore. The next track, "Event Horizon," finds McCandless's oboe out front with Johnson's guitar backing him like a full choir. It's a gorgeous effect.

Andy Reinhardt's accordion brings a different sound to "Music Roe." When Johnson's 12-string and Reinhardt's accordion play together at peak levels, the complementary resonances are overwhelming in their fullness and majesty. You've not heard the likes of this before. The next track, "Chuck Soup," adds even more variety to the mix, and demonstrates the potentially wide range of Johnson's audience. Lovers of new age music will find this track constantly flowing and mystical, jazz buffs will admire the magnificent chops and musical ideas (including fascinating rhythms, punctuations and pulses), and fans of acoustic guitar will just dig the hell out of it.

Now it's standard time, and Johnson takes two old chestnuts and turns them into something brand new, with "Cheek to Cheek/Dance in Heaven" and "Happy Talk/Dream a Dream." In the first, McCandless contributes a lovely lead line, and there's great rhythmic backup throughout. Johnson then deconstructs "Happy Talk," brilliantly playing games with the tune. "Sketches of Miles" puts a new spin on Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain, with Johnson seemingly paying subtle tribute to John McLaughlin as well.

Johnson enters the blues territory of another guitarist named Johnson, with "New West Helena Blues," a rolling composition filled with hot licks and graced by a sock ending. After a very brief and charming duet with his celloist daughter, Johnson and McCandless increase the intensity with "1-5-90." Johnson then duets with acoustic slide guitarist Warren Haynes on "Freestone Peach" to produce a superb tapestry of guitar sound. The final track, "Ritual Ground," brings the cast of players together in a gentle tribute to Johnson's late uncle, a rich and moving way to end the CD.

This is a gem of an album. The sheer musicianship of the participants, the depth of Johnson's writing and the expertise of his guitar playing create a work that one will return to again and again, hearing new voices and finding new ideas in every listening.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 21 July 2001

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