Jazz pianist and band leader Buddy Johnson (a.k.a. Woodrow Wilson Johnson) is not one of the first names that comes to most people’s minds when they think of famous jazz figures. That is likely because most of his biggest hits were considered R&B and pop works. For all of the popularity and success that he achieved through those works, Johnson also had plenty of jazz hits, though none of them ever put him in the upper echelons of the jazz community. This past May, the jazz collective known as Planet D Nonet brought renewed attention to Johnson and his work with its new live recording, Tribute to Buddy Johnson: Live at the Scarab Club. Released May 22 through Eastlawn Records, the 16-song set was recorded May 20, 2018 at the noted jazz club in Detroit, MI. The show’s set list forms the recording’s foundation and will be discussed shortly. The concert’s production adds its own welcome touch to the whole and will be addressed a little later. The recording’s packaging rounds out its most important elements and will also be examined later. Each item noted is important in its own way to the whole of the recording. All things considered they make this presentation one more of this year’s top new live CDs.
Tribute to Buddy Johnson: Live at the Scarab Club, the new live recording from Planet D Nonet, is a successful new offering from the group that properly honors Johnson’s legacy. That is due in large part to the recording’s 16-song set list. The set list pulls extensively from Johnson’s early career, featuring singles that he released during his time with Decca Records and Mercury Records. It reaches all the way back to 1945 with his single, ‘Since I Fell For You’ and up to 1954 through his single, ‘Mush Mouth.’ That song was a b-side to his single, ‘One More Time.’ Speaking of b-sides, many of the songs that make up the set list are in fact b-sides to his primary singles, making them even more special. That is because b-sides have always received less attention than a-sides across the musical universe. So for all intents and purposes what audiences get here is really a collection of rarities performed by Planet D Nonet, from an artist who is himself a lesser-known jazz artist and composer. The only song featured in the set list that was not composed by Johnson was the set’s penultimate entry, ‘Walk That Chalk Line.’ The song was composed by Lorenzo Pack. Some of the early singles featured in the set list – ‘It’s Obdacious,’ ‘I’m Just Your Fool,’ ‘Lil Dog’ and ‘Crazy ‘Bout a Saxophone’ would go on to be included in the albums that Johnson would eventually go on to release as his career progressed. So really, what audiences get here is a set list that is rather interesting in its representation of Johnson’s career. It isn’t just the typical, run-of-the-mill body of work, but a more unique collection that still pays tribute to Johnson and his work in positive fashion. To that end, the set list featured here forms a solid foundation for the recording.
The production that went into the recording strengthens that foundation even more. This concert was recorded before the COVID-19 pandemic impacted America, so the group actually had a live audience to enjoy the concert. That audience noise is just as audible throughout the concert as the instrumental and vocal performances by the band. It is so well-balanced with the music and vocals in each song and even between the songs. In turn it creates a certain sense of joy for audiences, just hearing that live effect. That is especially the case considering how long audiences and musical acts alike went without live music once the pandemic made its way across the country starting in 2019. Even those occasional moments when some of the vocals sound slightly distant, that effect was intended. It adds even more to that sense of being right there, thus immersing audiences even more in the concert. In other words, the production that went into this recording proves just as positive as the recording’s set list. It makes the recording all the more enjoyable.
While the content featured in Planet D Nonet’s new live recording and its production are considered together, the two items go a long way toward making the recording so enjoyable. They are just part of what makes the recording successful, too. The packaging rounds out its most important elements. More specifically, the liner notes therein are really what makes the packaging important. The liner notes, penned by blues musician Duke Robillard, remind audiences right from the opening paragraph that the work of Johnson and his orchestra have sadly been nearly forgotten in the annals of American musical history. That is true. Again, as noted early here, Johnson and his work are not the first to come to mind when one thinks of great jazz names and works. Robillard also highlight’s Johnson’s signature “walking rhythm” as he writes about the band’s performance of ‘Walk The Chalk Line’. From there, Robillard points out other high points throughout the concert in terms of specific song performances, setting the figurative stage for audiences before they even play the recording. It is a great way to introduce audiences to the concert. When the general effect of the liner notes is considered along with the equally positive impact of the set list itself and the concert’s recording, the whole makes this recording a wonderful tribute to Johnson and hopefully just the start in a renewed focus on him and his work.
Tribute to Buddy Johnson: Live at the Scarab Club, the new live recording from Planet D Nonet, is a thoroughly enjoyable presentation from the jazz collective. That is due in large part to its featured set list. The set list pulls extensively from Johnson’s early catalog of singles. In other words, it focuses on what were essentially his formative years. What’s more, many of the songs featured herein are b-sides to his singles rather than a-sides. That makes them even rarer to a point. This makes the set list all the more enjoyable and special. The recording’s production expertly balances the audio throughout the show, making for even more enjoyment as it fully immerses audiences in the recording. The liner notes that accompany the recording in its packaging round out the recording’s most important elements. That is because they set the stage for the presentation featured on the disc. Each item examined is important in its own way to the whole of the recording. All things considered they make Tribute to Buddy Johnson: Live at the Scarab Club one more of this year’s top new live CDs.
Tribute to Buddy Johnson: Live at the Scarab Club is available now through Eastlawn Records. More information on the record is available at https://eastlawnrecords.com.
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