Lonnie Johnson ‘Four Classic Albums’ 2CD (Avid Roots) 5/5

lonnie-johnsonGuitarist, composer and multi-instrumentalist Lonnie Johnson was always more than a blues singer and his influence on other musicians was profound, impacting upon jazz innovators such as Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt and even T-Bone Walker, while his later period, chronicled here, led Bob Dylan to seek him out. Moreover, Johnson performed with the all-time greats including Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and James P. Johnson among a host of others.
All the more reason, then, for a timely re-appraisal of his works. This masterful collection groups together four albums that came out in the space of a year between 1960 and 1961, and they were recorded in the pristine surroundings of Rudy Van Gelder’s studio and released on the Prestige off-shoot label, Bluesville. Long collectors items on their original vinyl, to have them together coupled with another duet recording with ace blues singer Victoria Spivey is a treat to behold for any fan of the blues. Historically, these recordings are significant in that they coincide exactly with the blues and folk revival of the early 1960s and without question Lonnie Johnson was still in peak form.
More contemporary in outlook for the time, the first CD fuses folk blues with R & B on ‘Blues by Lonnie Johnson’, with a band comprising Hal Singer on tenor saxophone and long-time collaborator Wendell Marshall on bass. A superb all original set is highlighted by ‘No Love For Sale’, ‘She Devil’ and ”Big Leg Woman’, though in truth everything is worth listening to repeatedly. A duet recording with Victoria Spivey is testimony to Johnson’s adaptability and Cliff Jackson joins on piano for a collection of originals by both singers with Spivey’s own ‘Long Time Blues’ and Johnson’s ‘Please Baby’ and ‘Leave Me Or Love Me’, the major numbers.

The second CD captures Johnson in more reflective mood, with a correspondingly more pared down sound on the epic, ‘Blues and Ballads’, which was recorded with guitarist Elmer Snowden. A varied repertoire includes two blues standards, ‘Back Water Blues’, by Bessie Smith and ‘St. Louis Blues’ by W.C. Handy. Both are expertly handled by the duo. However, the best is reserved for the originals that are nothing less than superlative. Arguably the pick of an outstanding bunch is the chilling, ‘Haunted house’. On the second album,’ Losing game’, the formula is repeated with Great American songbook classic numbers revisited, of which ‘Summertime’ is inventively re-interpreted and featuring a more laid back rendition of, ‘What a difference a day makes’, that would be a swan song hit for Dinah Washington, barely a year or so later.

Outstanding music which is matched by the exceptional time value of eighty minutes per CD. If you do not already possess these sides and would like to hear blues with a jazzy dose of virtuosity, this music is unquestionably for you and what a musical voyage of discovery you have in store.

Tim Stenhouse