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Blues Anatomy with Jef Lee Johnson: Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson

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Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson honors Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson (1899-1970), the blues star of the 1920s who’s generally regarded as the creator of the now-common single-note guitar solo. Johnson was also a vocalist, and second only to Blind Lemon Jefferson in sales among male blues performers of that era. Yet there’s something amiss with this tribute, which uses a Philadelphia-rooted cast to honor the New Orleans-born Johnson.

The instrumentalists in Blues Anatomy, along with guest guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, do their parts in recalling an 80-year-old era. The guitarist is particularly impressive on the late Johnson’s instrumentals, like “Swing Out Rhythm,” “6/88 Glide” and the unaccompanied “Playing With the Strings.” But Blues Anatomy vocalist Eddie Davis takes W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” and Louis Armstrong’s “I’m Not Rough” closer to Las Vegas than to the Crescent City through his overpolished delivery. The late Johnson was once a sideman in the bands of Armstrong and Duke Ellington, so he learned to growl and swing from the best. Davis’ cleaner phrasing is best-suited to the slow blues of Handy’s “Careless Love” and Johnson’s “Broken Levee Blues.” He gets ace backing from bandmates Rick Nollet (guitar), Mike Suchodolski (keyboards), Rick Prince (bass) and Lenny Gordon (drums) on both. Vocalist Geoff Muldaur’s cameo delivery of Johnson’s “He’s a Jelly Roll Baker” also leaves the spice out of the gumbo. Guitarists Nollet, Johnson and Joe Mass attempt a salvage attempt afterward, re-creating their late predecessor’s guitar duets with Eddie Lang on “Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues” and “Bull Frog Moan.” Yet Johnson’s surprise 1948 comeback hit, “Tomorrow Night,” since covered by Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, closes the disc with a whimper.