Jazz piano masters tend to slot easily into categories. There are seemingly beyond-the-bounds-of-possibility virtuosos (Art Tatum), blues melders (Wynton Kelly) and genre purveyors (Meade Lux Lewis), but few ivory-savants leapt about like James P. Johnson.
This box-which has the standard Mosaic heft, with six discs topped to the max-covers a little more than two decades in Johnson’s career, and it does the man a service surpassed only by his playing. For Johnson has never quite had his due, being what we think of as a “pianist’s pianist.” If you play the instrument, you probably love him, and hear in his work things you’d like to integrate into yours. But Johnson was never really a flair guy, nor a power guy, which can make you an underrated guy.
The stride mastery is on regular display, as you’d expect, but it’s the less stride-based numbers that most delight and affirm that there was far more to Johnson’s art. “Keep Off the Grass,” an October 1921 solo piece, is pure twinkling incandescence, a forerunner to Erroll Garner, but with blue clouds hovering around this particular gemstone. Even in brightness there is always an anchor with Johnson, a pull back to earth. “Carolina Shout,” from the same session, is all-out barrelhouse strut, a loud knock on the front door of the after-hours club to be let inside. This is generous, big-spirited fun, the blues when the blues gets happy.
A lot of Johnson’s bones were made as an accompanist, and many of these cuts feature other principle artists, so the ground can be somewhat patchy; Johnson’s playing never is, though. He even takes a vocal turn himself on “How Could I Be Blue,” from early 1930, an ostensible novelty number that proceeds like some sub-Laurel & Hardy featurette about cuckolding and works itself into a pianistic tour de force. “Come on, let’s play piana”-that’s right, with the “a”-Johnson suggests conciliatorily, and boy does he take off.
More subtle are the recordings of “Death Letter Blues” from, appropriately, Halloween 1939, with a stunning lineup featuring Hot Lips Page on trumpet, Charlie Christian on guitar, J.C. Higginbotham on trombone, Lionel Hampton drumming, Ida Cox singing, John Hammond supervising and Johnson offering rumbly thunder beneath it all. If you’re not looking for the piano, you’re not especially aware of it, but that’s how deft Johnson could be. There has likely never been a slower, more emotionally grinding version of this song, Johnson’s note clusters like peals of organ wafted up from a hell of grief.
“Can I Get It Now,” from a three-piece billed as Johnson’s Jazzers, offers more spry company in a September 1927 rendition. Note the ebullient bounce in Johnson’s lines as he enters into chipper dialogue with cornetist Louis Metcalf. First they call out, beckoning, then they question, saunter with, salute and, finally, dovetail in perfect accord.
And then we have the treat of listening to Johnson and Bessie Smith perform as a duo, no one else around to infringe upon their shared genius. It is early in 1927, a year that will later see Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig team up for another brand of shared genius, but Johnson and Smith are the duo of the epoch. She clearly loves singing with him (and the swampy “Back Water Blues” may even surpass the vaunted “Preachin’ the Blues”) precisely because she hears, in a moment, what we can hear across the expanse of this set-that nimbleness to move from forefront to background, from light to shade, from shade atop light. One never quite knows where Johnson will be coming from, but were one to assign him a category, “right” would probably do the trick, or “always apropos.”