Readers of last month’s inaugural ‘What’s Smooth Jazz?’ will recall that its purpose is to draw up a short list of really great smooth jazz tracks that could be used to demonstrate and explain smooth jazz to someone brand new to the genre. Last time it was the Peter White / Grover Washington Jnr. collaboration ‘Midnight In Manhattan’ and equally significant is the latest choice in our quest to identify what smooth jazz really is. It is ‘88 Ways To Love’ written and performed by Marcus Johnson and taken from his 1998 album. ‘Chocolate City Groovin.’
The multi talented Johnson heads up his own record label and is the morning drive time co-host on Washington DC’s smooth jazz station, 105.9 WJZW. However, as a smooth jazz keyboard player, Marcus Johnson is well known for incorporating the rhythms of rap with the soul of R&B. He grew up in Washington DC listening to a broad variety of music. His mother played classical piano and his first memorable concert experience was seeing an Earth Wind and Fire show with his father. His interest in jazz first showed itself at the age of 13when he began playing the piano. His stepfather had won Maryland’s ‘Pick-3 Lottery’ and used the winnings to buy Johnson his first keyboard. He found himself studying both traditional and contemporary jazz musicians and quotes names such as Thelonious Monk and Joe Sample as major influences.
Reviewing ‘Chocolate City Groovin’ at the time of its release Michael G. Nastos described Johnson as a “Ramsey Lewis wannabe operating in his 1974 ‘Sun Goddess’ phase”. He referred to his music as “simplistic, unchallenging melodies that are pleasant enough, but closer to disco than real R&B.” Mr. Nastros is entitled to his opinion. He should however be aware that the ‘Sun Goddess’ project was a collaboration for Lewis with Earth Wind and Fire, the band that inspired Johnson as a youth. Consequently any similarity, intentional or otherwise, should not be surprising.
In addition, for the true aficionado of smooth jazz, ‘88 Ways to Love’ is a real stand out track that demonstrates Johnson’s keyboard virtuosity. Although ‘Chocolate City Groovin’ features great vocals from Alyson Williams plus nice side work from guitarist Stan Cooper and sax men Marshall Keys and Bryan Mills, Johnson very much goes it alone on ‘88 Ways to Love’. His multiple keyboard programming achieves an easy dance groove that he overlays with excellent smooth jazz piano playing. It’s a wonderful example of smooth jazz that can also be found on the Jazz FM compilation ‘Pacific Coast Highway’.
Check back for more great examples of ‘What’s Smooth Jazz?’ Do you have your own candidate for the ‘What’s Smooth Jazz?’ feature? If so please e-mail me on DenisPoole2000@yahoo.com