James P. Johnson: The Original

James P. didn’t live as long as his pals Eubie Blake and Willie “the Lion” Smith, who had enough rebirths to be well-remembered today, but Johnson is an even greater figure both in terms of his more developed piano style and his greater importance as a composer and musical thinker. It’s ironic that today his most often-performed song is probably the Bob Wills version of “Old Fashioned Love” that Western Swingers know.

This great program stretches from some of the best ragtime on record (“Euphonic Sounds”, “The Dream” and others) through wonderful blues and boogie tracks to great readings of pop songs like “Liza” and “Sweet Lorraine,” but I think most significant are “Yamecraw” and the other reductions of Johnson’s attempts at third stream composition. Based on the evidence here, he deserves not the dismissal that the jazz press has previously given this work but the highest praise for some of the best things this approach has ever yielded. All in all a delightful record by a forgotten giant. – Duck Baker