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Jeff Richman &
Wayne Johnson: The Distance
by George Graham
(ITI Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/17/2014)
The New Age scene, once quite popular from the mid 1980s on, has faded somewhat in prominence. In a way, one could say that the music has explored most of its possibilities, so the number of new recordings being made has diminished. In its heyday artists like pianist George Winston and guitarist William Ackerman would create solo contemplative instrumental music that achieved considerable popularity by being something nice to meditate to. Other artists, over time, took the music much beyond its origins to more musically substantial territory as the scene evolved. The logical extension of taking instrumental music to more sophisticated realms is jazz.
This week, we have an enjoyable album by two Southern-California-based jazz guitarists who make music that might appeal to New Age fans at times, with its sometimes ethereal or introspective-sounding approach played on mainly acoustic guitars. It’s from Jeff Richman and Wayne Johnson, titled The Distance, which sounds something like a New Age album title. But their music is, let’s say, a little meatier than the trademark New Age sound.
Both Jeff Richman and Wayne Johnson have had substantial careers in jazz. Jeff Richman studied under Pat Metheny at the Berklee College of Music. Among his classmates were Mike Stern. Al DiMeola, and Bill Frisell. Richman lived in New York during the latter 1970s and performed and recorded with percussionist Ray Barretto. He also performed in the bands of Blood Sweat & Tears, Harvey Mason, and Mark Isham to name a few. Wayne Johnson has been playing guitar on and off with the Manhattan Transfer since the late 1970s. He performed with Rickie Lee Jones for two years. He has also maintained his own career, with a trio, and series of solo recordings, one of which, Pink Mancini won a Grammy Award in the pop- instrumental category in 2005. Like Richman, Wayne Johnson moved to Southern California, after being based in New York for a number of years.
The Distance is the second joint album Richman and Johnson have made together. They released one called Apache in 2005. The Distance has enough jazz credibility to keep jazz aficionado happy, but it’s also laid-back enough to attract New Age fans. For the most part, it’s just the two guitarists on electric and acoustic guitars, occasionally with some overdubs. Frequent studio musician Jo Pusateri appears doing percussion on a few of the tracks.
The material is mainly original with the composing duties roughly equally divided between Richman and Johnson. They also include a couple of covers, including a new version of the old twangy rock guitar hit Apache and a tune by singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin. It’s all well done with lots of little touches to make it interesting.
Opening is a piece by Jeff Richman called Let This Be the One. It’s one of the more upbeat compositions on the album with a combination of electric and acoustic guitars and percussion. With both of the guitarists having had contact with Pat Metheny, it’s not suprising that one can hear some Metheny influence in the texture of the tune. <<>>
The following piece, Little Star also by Richman, is about as close to straight jazz as the album gets, with its bossa nova influenced sound, jazzy chord changes, and turns taken for solos. <<>>
The title piece The Distance, co-written by the two guitarists, is more toward a kind of New Age influenced rock sound with the electric guitar played by Richman. <<>>
The New Age ethos again comes to the fore on a track with a name that seems appropriate, Kite Music. It’s nicely done with a little ethereal guitar synthesizer sound. <<>>
The first of the covers is the old rock and roll instrumental Apache first recorded by the Shadows in 1960. The original was known for its twangy electric guitars, but Richman and Johnson serve it up acoustically. <<>> After the familiar theme is explored, the duo goes in interesting directions. <<>>
Another of the cover tunes is When Sunny Came Home by Shawn Colvin, which was folky to begin with. The jazzy-sounding acoustic guitars make this instrumental version quite attractive. <<>>
The other cover of a tune from the pop vocal world is I Can’t Make You Love Me which was recorded by Bonnie Raitt. Richman and Johnson give it a quiet contemplative treatment. <<>>
The CD ends with an original piece by Wayne Johnson called Tumblin’. It’s a nice folky-jazzy mix with a slightly funky beat, served on their two acoustic guitars. <<>>
The Distance is the new joint album by Jeff Richman and Wayne Johnson, two veteran jazz and pop guitarists who have had their own independent careers, usually working as sidemen. They create enjoyable instrumental music that should appeal to fans who like New Age and to jazz aficionados who appreciate good guitar playing and arranging. It’s their second collaborative album. They come up with a very tasteful blend that highlights their guitar work but without it being much of a virtuosity showcase. The balance between the composed parts and the improvisation is well calibrated, and the result is an album that will reward foreground listening and also serve as a pleasing musical backdrop for whatever you might be doing.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” The guitars are well-recorded with the acoustic guitar sound coming across as warm and bright. The dynamic range, while not great, does allow for some ebb and flow to the volume of the music.
A lot of today’s pop music may involve synthesizers, but a couple of excellent guitarists working together can make for timeless music. The Distance is one of those instances.
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