The James P. Johnson Songbook
How wonderful that music like this still gets made: honest-to-goodness old-time jazz, done without irony. Guitarist and banjoist Marty Grosz is not so much interested in putting his own stamp on James P. Johnson’s compositions as in delivering them to a new audience in a new age. Johnson, perhaps the greatest of all stride pianists, performed much of his music as a soloist, when he was on top of the world (or at least Harlem) in the 1920s and ’30s. Grosz, who was born in 1930, has taken 14 of Johnson’s tunes and rearranged them, 13 for a Dixieland septet and the 14th for two guitars.
The Hot Winds—James Dapogny (piano, celeste), Dan Block (clarinets), Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet), Scott Robinson (saxophones), Vince Giordano (bass, tuba, bass sax) and Arnie Kinsella (drums)—handle the songbook deftly and with conviction. The great empathy these musicians have for one another is as crucial to the success of this session as the compositions themselves. On the lively “Alabama Stomp,” most everybody gets a chance to strut; Block, done with his own solo, provides perfect harmonic accompaniment to Kellso’s restatement of the theme.
Dapogny and Grosz, when they aren’t in the spotlight, comp beautifully for the others, on tunes like “’Sippi” and “Charleston.” The set concludes with a tasty guitar duet, just Grosz and Jim Gicking going at it on “Harlem Woogie.” Really, though, it’s hard to single out highlights. The James P. Johnson Songbook is a bright, refreshing and earnest program of good clean fun. (We’re even willing to forgive Grosz’s decision to sing on a few tunes.) It’s a treat to hear Grosz’s band take us back to the dawn of jazz—with better recording equipment.