January/February 2005

Richard Leo Johnson

Richard Leo Johnson's approach to the guitar is so intuitive and idiosyncratic that he has often had trouble finding the right "fit" with other musicians. Because he has created a wholly new language on his instrument based on all manner of oddball tunings, extended techniques and his own quirky sense of rhythm, Johnson has mainly performed solo in his 150 gig-per-year touring schedule. But now the fingerstyle guitarist has finally found two key collaborators to complement his eccentric vision. For Poetry of Appliance (Cuneiform), he joins forces with two former members of the Savannah Symphony Orchestra: violinist Ricardo Ochoa (who doubles on theremin) and woodwind specialist Andrew Ripley (who plays melodica and Yamaha wind-driven synth). "They look at me as somebody who has his own weird vocabulary," says Johnson, "and they get off on that because their whole life has been strictly classical music."

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Clay Patrick McBride

Richard Leo Johnson

Together they create seamless, impressionistic little gems with an Edward Gorey-ish undercurrent, like the spacious, bittersweet ballad "Eulogy" and the darkly menacing closer "The Moon Is a Sky Thing." They also put a new spin on Johnson's surging "Glide Path," which previously appeared on Fingertip Ship, his stunning 1999 debut on Blue Note's sister label Metro Blue. "These guys dosed it with a whole new deal," he says of that remake. "None of my stuff is written down, so they just created all these new sections and parts to everything. I was almost in tears with some of the stuff that they would come up with. It really made what I was doing sound very musical while also working out all these personal fantasies for them to do something other than classical music."

Hearing Johnson play his acoustic 6- and 12-string McCollom double-neck guitar solo or in this trio context conjures up memories of Leo Kottke, Ralph Towner, John McLaughlin (circa My Goal's Beyond) and Michael Hedges. On Fingertip Ship and his 2000 Blue Note follow-up, Language, Johnson introduced the uninitiated to a brave new world of fingerstyle guitar playing, replete with percussive body slapping, string spanking and tapping, radical hammer-ons and pull-offs, ringing harmonics and alternate tunings. His use of EBow on Poetry of Appliance has led him to experiment with that hand-held electronic device on a vintage 1930s National Steel guitar. "It's about the eeriest sounding thing you've ever heard," warns the restlessly creative six-stringer.

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