Steve Johns – Family [TrackList follows] – Strikezone 8811, 56:38 [5/5/15] ****1/2:
(Steve Jones – drums; Debbie Keefe Johns – tenor and soprano saxophone; Daryl Johns – acoustic and electric bass; Dave Stryker – guitar, nylon-string guitar (tracks 1, 3-6), producer; Bob DeVos – guitar (tracks 2, 7-9))
Drummer Steve Johns keeps it all in the family, more or less, on his aptly-titled debut as a leader, the 56-minute Family. Johns has been active in the jazz community for over three decades, keeping time for Sonny Fortune, Nat Adderley, Stanley Turrentine, Benny Carter, Randy Brecker, Larry Coryell, and Dr. Billy Taylor. Johns’ credits as a sideman comprise over 70 recordings, and he also co-leads the group Native Soul. So, why did Johns wait to do his first project as frontman? He states in the CD’s liner notes the reason is simple, “I’ve reached a pivotal point where our son is leaving for studies at Manhattan School of Music. I wanted to capture our magic as a musical family in a bottle, so the CD idea was born.” Johns is referring to 18-year-old bassist Daryl Johns, who joins his father and mother (tenor and soprano saxophonist Debbie Keefe Johns, who makes her first appearance on this CD, although she has extensive live experience) alongside two honorary family members: guitarists Bob DeVos and Dave Stryker. Stryker (who also produced Family) met Johns in the early 1980s in New York City. DeVos has known Johns since the early 1990s and has featured Johns on three DeVos albums.
The nine tracks shift between late-night balladry to up-swinging music, and range from originals by Stryker, Johns and DeVos, to a couple of covers. Johns’ bluesy opener “Sleepwalk” is anything but somnambulistic. This catchy piece provides a good example of Johns’ drum and percussion talents, as he inserts numerous accents, rhythmic coloring, and cadenced variants beneath solos from Debbie, Stryker and Daryl. Johns admits the title was stimulated by late evening inspiration, “I woke up in the middle of the night with this melody in my head, so I got out of bed and sang it into my cell phone voice recorder and finished it in the morning.” Another notable number is the noir-ish “Bogie and Bacall,” a darkly-delineated ballad highlighted by Stryker’s nylon-stringed acoustic guitar, Debbie’s emotive sax solo and Daryl’s evocative bass improvisation. Listening to the young bass player, you can tell he’s going to generate interest in the jazz world after he graduates. Johns remarks the tune was going to be a medium swing excursion dedicated to his son. But his wife convinced Johns to slow the beat and his son persuaded his dad to alter the direction of the title, so the cut now reflects a black-and-white film atmosphere and is a testament to Lauren Bacall, who passed away in summer 2014.
The family connectedness continues on Johns’ “DKJ,” with Debbie on soprano sax and DeVos on guitar. This mid-tempo track has a swinging panache with some tricky changes. The soprano sax supplies a peppy impression. “DKJ” alludes to the family’s initials: “D” for Daryl; “K” for Keefe; and “J” for Johns. Johns’ final composition, the funky “Chunk,” co-written with friend and fellow musician Jeff Holmes. The alternating “Chunk” fluently blends 4/4 and 5/8 time signatures, and is a fun piece which starts out with an appropriately odd noise: the sound of a squeezed, rubber toy pig, which Daryl then effectively uses during the rest of tune. This may be the first time a rubber pig was the semi-star of a jazz selection.
Stryker fans will probably enjoy re-hearing one of his works, the up-tempo “Shadowboxing,” which Stryker previously did on drummer Matt Kane’s 2013 effort, Suit Up!; organist Jared Gold’s 2013 record, Intuition; and Steve Slagle’s 2013 release, Evensong. The 14-bar minor blues is a tour de force. The arrangement is prominent since each solo is introduced by a recap of the theme, or a variation of the main motif, so there is always an integrated unity. Stryker has an extended solo; then Debbie steps in on soaring tenor sax to display her resourceful technique; Daryl is spotlighted with a fast-fingered bass improv; and Johns concludes with a structured, melodic drum solo. Anyone familiar with Stryker might also recognize “Came to Believe,” from the Stryker/Slagle Band’s 2010 CD, Keeper. This cut has an expressive quality, since it’s constructed with a swing style on top and a funk feel on the bottom end. This is enhanced by Johns’ drumming, where he perceptively and dexterously fills spaces, and furnishes a persistent groove which enriches the theme and the various solos from the other performers.
The two covers show Johns’ skills as a translator of other people’s material. Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira’s “Mixing” (first done on Moreira’s 1970 LP, Natural Feelings) has a light, breezy character heightened by soprano sax and Stryker’s six-string expertise (he commences on electric guitar at the tune’s beginning, but switches later to nylon-string acoustic). A modern fusion timbre is maintained by Daryl’s funk-inclined electric bass and Johns’ lithe drums. Daryl’s sinuous electric bass lines also surge through Holmes’ steadily organized “So You Say,” penned specifically for this session. Holmes and Johns are close acquaintances. Johns’ can be heard on Holmes’ 2011 debut, Of One’s Own. The twining theme on “So You Say” mingles methodically with solo statements from DeVos and Debbie (on tenor sax). This is the kind of piece which reveals nuances on subsequent listening. Family is a genuinely first-rate presentation with creativity, compositional strength, topnotch performances and an organic flow. You can stream preview samples of Family at Steve John’s website. Let’s hope the Johns’ have an opportunity to do another such album in the near future.
TrackList: Sleepwalk; So You Say; Shadowboxing; Bogie and Bacall; Came to Believe; Mixing; DKJ; Shell Game; Chunk.