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Deceiving Eyes-- RJ and The Assignment

The debut CD from RJ (aka Reginald Johnson) reveals a very talented pianist, composer, and arranger who bears close watching in the future. RJ grew up on Chicago's South Side, where his earliest musical schooling came in the church, before he went on to study music at Xavier University and UNLV. He has worked with such artists as Jennifer Hudson, Otis Clay, Angie Stone, and Erykah Badu, and is now based in Las Vegas, where he plays the local clubs and major casinos. His supporting cast, or The Assignment, on Deceiving Eyes is anchored by two piano trios, one with bassist Scott Teeple and drummer Paul Ringenbach, and the other with electric bassist Jason Bolden and drummer Terry Wesley II. They are bolstered in spots by saxophonist Julian Tanaka, bassist Mariko Kitada, drummer Kenneth Logan, and vocalist Jeanine Smith. The varied program on the CD is jazz laced here and there with elements of R&B, hip-hop, neo soul and gospel.

If you are not hooked from the start by RJ's sparkling version of Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance," then don't bother listening to the rest of the CD. RJ's full-bodied unaccompanied intro leads to his singular reading of the theme with the backing of Teeple and Ringenbach. The pianist's solo is well-conceived and shows his fresh rhythmic sense and harmonic ingenuity, as he takes the melody down roads less traveled. Teeple's improv is also compelling, and Ringenbach's drum work is never less than tasteful and enhancing. Tanaka's tenor sax takes on RJ's warmly sentimental "I Took a Chance on Loving You," and sails right into an assured, adamantly swirling extended solo, with RJ and Teeple's pulsating bass offering solid encouragement. RJ follows with an equally possessed, relentlessly swinging take on his tune. He and Tanaka then engage Ringenbach in a series of uplifting exchanges prior to the reprise and the saxophonist's neatly summarizing coda.

RJ's medley of "Suicide is Painless" (the theme from M.A.S.H.) and Miles Davis' "Nardis" is a must hear. He treats "Suicide" briskly with both bite and affability, his ringing piano sound and glistening runs supplemented by the steadfast Teeple and Ringenbach's vibrant accentuations. The abrupt rotation into "Nardis" helps make apparent its similarity to the M.A.S.H tune, and both the bassist and drummer contribute melodically-focused, nuanced solos. "Someday My Prince Will Come" begins with RJ's heartfelt prelude and theme rendition, which are succeeded by Teeple's profound and absorbing solo. RJ's cascading, whirlwind excursion is driven along by Teeple's persistent bass lines and Ringenbach's apt and diverse rhythms. The leader's reprise is capped by a welcome quote from "When You Wish Upon a Star" and a concise, resolving coda.

The gospel star Richard Smallwood's "Total Praise" is given a solo piano interpretation, with RJ reverent and spiritually moving, and hinting subtly at the preceding "Someday My Prince Will Come." "New Beginnings" was written for RJ's cousin Yolanda on her 40th birthday, and has an inspiring, striving theme. The pianist's solo is more ornamental than expansive, allowing the melody's strength to shine through and make an impact, with Bolden and Wesley II in understated agreement. The piece's sudden ending, however, is puzzling. The theme of Cedar Walton's "Bolivia" is carried by Tanaka, with a vigorous fill by RJ in the middle. Tanaka solos inventively in stop-and-start fashion as bassists Bolden and Kitada and drummer Logan inject a hip-hop flavoring into the proceedings. The same framework is in place as well for RJ's circuitous improvisation, keeping this keen arrangement a step or two above the norm.

The swaying, insinuating melody of RJ's "Deceiving Eyes," with its effectively contrasting bridge, is appetizing material for the pianist's lyrical, involving tempest of a solo. Bolden and Wesley II are also avidly committed here to the "assignment." About midway through the track, RJ's switch to electric piano/synthesizer subdues the mood somewhat, leading to Bolden's restful statement and Wesley II's more emphatic one, each elevated by RJ's appealing synth washes. RJ, Bolden, and Wesley II produce a superior interpretation of Pharrell Williams' first hit single, "Frontin'," with RJ again going both acoustic and electric. The drummer's aggressive, complex rhythms mesh well with Bolden's bass punctuations and RJ's creative development. Bolden's thoughtful, endearing solo is followed by RJ's actively searching, ever-building concoction that captivates right up to its, and the selection's, regrettable fade-out ending.

"Winter in Chicago" is a funky opus that sets a contagious groove at length, with Bolden and Wesley II playing off each other reflexively as RJ glides along with unhurried charm. A more turbulent, impelled finale is meant to signify the windy, snowy chill of a typical winter day in Chicago, after milder sunshine has given way. "Where R U" was composed in response to RJ's seven-year-old son Elijah's question when his father was wrapped up in work and too busy to be around for him. Jeanine Smith sings the simple refrain hauntingly, after which RJ's synthesizer, Wesley II's hip-hop beats, and Bolden's affirmative bass patterns generate an intense compound of sound.

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Scott Albin