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Blues Plus, the debut collaboration by James “Guitar” Mabry and Jacques “Saxman” Johnson is a smooth, good-time blues record played by two talented musicians. It was a live-in-the-studio effort, with only one overdub appearing on the album’s 10 happy-go-lucky songs. “It’s just like the old days, when they put a mike in front and say go, mistakes and all, and it just went on down,” Johnson says. “But it’s so free. If you listen to the recording, it sounds like it’s fun. And it was fun.” Johnson’s skills were refined over 27-and-a-half years of playing in Army bands, primarily with the military’s big band. After retiring as Sergeant Major, the highest rank an enlisted man can achieve, Johnson “taught two years of improv at UDC. Then I worked with senior citizens for two years, and I just resigned from Eastern High School, where I taught for five years. I got a new job offer from a school where I’m going to teach just jazz improv and run the jazz program.”
Johnson spent part of this summer baby-sitting his grandson, Askia. His daughter is bassist-singer Me’Shell NdegéOcello, whose Peace Beyond Passion CD is causing quite a stir with its first single, “Leviticus: Faggot.” Johnson is the one who bought NdegéOcello her first bass and encouraged her playing. “I used to take her on gigs with me, and she’d say, ‘Dad, I can’t do that!’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, you can. You’re a great bass player.’” Johnson says he and his daughter are very close, but there are some poignant lyrics on Peace in which NdegéOcello seems to strike out at her family. Johnson says he can discern that certain songs are based on NdegéOcello’s home life. So is it uncomfortable? “Um…,” he pauses. “It gets my attention.”
In addition to promoting Blues Plus, the second release on Johnson’s own label (the first was his own pop-jazz CD, Saxman), the tenor player is producing the new CD by Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels (of “Goodnight Sweetheart” fame), supporting his son Jacques Jr., guitarist in Pure ’n’ Natural, and soon he’s going to don yet another cap: author. “I’m going to write a book on improvisation. My claim to fame is that if you are an instructor and you have some students and you cannot get them to play jazz, I can teach them to play.”
Johnson plays the Outta the Way Cafe, 17503 Redland Rd., Derwood, Md., Aug. 16 and is joined by Mabry at 4 p.m. on Aug. 18 at Jackie Lee’s, 3rd & Kennedy Sts. NW. Blues Plus is available from Professional Performers Inc., (301) 839-9557.