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Henry Johnson with Nancy Wilson: Organic

Chicago-based guitarist Henry Johnson has learned a lot over the years through studying recordings of guitar masters Wes Montgomery, George Benson and Kenny Burrell. Then he received an advanced education working with organist Jack McDuff, vocal legend Donny Hathaway and keyboardist Ramsey Lewis (the last of which is still ongoing). Despite all that, the two things that had the greatest musical impact on Johnson are the renowned singer Joe Williams and the organ combos the guitarist heard growing up in the ’50s and ’60s.

Starting in 1985 Williams not only utilized Johnson’s talents for hundreds of concerts and several albums, he was a vocal coach who encouraged the guitarist to sing. Throughout Organic, the guitarist and now vocalist tastefully intertwines the seemingly disparate genres of organ-combo jazz and timeless velvety singing.

For this CD, old cohorts Peter Roothaan (reeds), Greg Rockingham (drums) and Chris Foreman (organ) deftly come together for appealing, uncomplicated, soulful tunes. Naturally, anything featuring the singing of jazz-and-pop all-star Nancy Wilson (also a former employer) is going to be a highlight, and she does several highly enjoyable duets with Johnson. Surprisingly, he holds his own pretty well, especially on “Hello Like Before,” on which he even adds some amusing adlib banter.

But “A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry,” a tribute to Williams, makes me wonder why Johnson, who has a relaxed manner resembling classic ballad masters Johnny Hartman and Billy Eckstine, isn’t doing more singing on the CD.

Originally Published