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(Landslide Records 1028 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/9/2003)
New Orleans is known as the birthplace of jazz, but its multi-cultural tradition has resulted in a unique polyglot music scene, bringing together everything from jazz to rhythm & blues to boogie-woogie and stride piano to brass-band music to the Cajun and Zydeco styles, with undercurrents of Latin American and even some classical. It's not surprising that musicians all over the country and world have found themselves influenced by the New Orleans music scene. This week, we have an excellent example. It's the latest recording by the Atlanta sextet known as King Johnson. They call their CD Hot Fish Laundry Mat.
King Johnson started out in 1995 as a blues trio, with guitarist and vocalist Oliver Wood, brother of Chris Wood of Medesky, Martin & Wood fame, bassist Chris Long, and drummer Greg Baba. The name they chose for the group was intended to pay tribute to all the bluesmen named King and Johnson -- such as B.B., Freddie and Albert King; Robert, Luther, and Blind Willie Johnson. Over the course of eight years and three previous albums, the group gradually added horns and a percussionist with diverse backgrounds who brought their various musical influences into the mix. With near-constant performing and touring, and a natural predilection toward jamming, they have evolved into an eclectic but danceable mix which draws on a panoply of New Orleans ingredients, from the brass band sound, including tuba, to Zydeco rub-board percussion, to the distinctive Crescent City rhythmic groove, with its underlying "Latin tinge," as it has been called. They even dabble with some hillbilly country influence. Their added horn players, trombonist and sousaphonist Adam Mewherter, and saxophonist Marcus James bring interesting backgrounds, with Mewherter having been a part of James Brown's band, along with playing in horn sections for Don Henley and Al Jarreau among others. Saxophonist James spent a while playing in a circus band, and also performed with the late Steve Allen. Rounding out the group is percussionist Chris Uhler, whose contributions further broaden the group's sound.
King Johnson is known mainly as a live band, and the jam-oriented nature of their music comes across on this CD, which mixes in bits of live performance, or at least some audience ambience. Despite the dance groove orientation of their music, the group often comes up with some interesting lyrics which further sets it apart from others of its ilk.
The New Orleans horn-laden funk groove is evident from the first track, Personal Thing, with its whimsical lyrics. <<>>
Hits of the Zydeco sound, in the form of the rub-board percussion, make their appearance on Atlas, which also gets rocky and also features lyrics atypical of dance-oriented music.
One of the eclectic highlights is Fine Line, with its clever lyrics, infectious horn line, and stylistic twists and turns. <<>>
King Johnson also serves up a kind of ballad. Time Stands Still is a sad story of love lost, with James on the clarinet to add a different flavor. <<>>
The group attempts to describe themselves on the song called, as one word, Adultcontemporaryrootsrockbluesjazzfunk. When they put it all together they get a distinct New Orleans groove that's hard to resist. <<>>
One of the more musically adventurous tracks is Flow which zig-zags between a James Brown style funk groove and a Latin beat. <<>>
Another of the highlights of Hot Fish Laundry Mat is the mostly acoustic One More Day, which takes the group into another, more traditional aspect of New Orleans music. <<>>
Probably the biggest surprise is the song called When, with its hillbilly influence, complete with jaw harp. The lyrics are also fun -- about a man complaining about the faithfulness of his ex-wife to her new man. <<>> Just to mix it up, the group flips from country to funk in the middle. <<>>
The CD ends with its most off-the-wall track, Ornot, which is said to have been influenced by jazz musician Ornette Coleman, with its frantic horn lines, though the beat lapses into a rather un-jazz-like reggae style. <<>>
Atlanta-based King Johnson, on their fourth album, Hot Fish Laundry Mat comes up with an appealing mix of danceable New Orleans-influenced music that comes close to their own song-title description "adult contemporary roots-rock blues jazz funk." The sextet combines creativity with a unmistakable sense of good fun. This is a band that definitely sounds as if they are enjoying themselves. They provide party music with a fair number of musical surprises, from the quick stylistic jumps to the unexpectedly interesting lyrics. The musicianship is solid, and the writing, credited to the whole band, is first-rate.
Our sound-quality grade is a B-plus. Most of the instruments are recorded well, but the CD is overly-compressed, which is typical, and sometimes the horns don't sound as sonically clean as they should.
One normally thinks of party music as rather unchallenging musically -- designed to make you move, not think. But King Johnson on their new CD combine some great grooves with a surprising amount of eclecticism.
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