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Oscar Peterson, in case you’re not familiar, is Canada’s finest jazz musician and one of the all-time greatest virtuosos of the jazz piano. In terms of sheer technique, as well as his swing and melodic imagination, Peterson could be considered the best of his generation. But Peterson also had a very specific flaw: He had an urgent need to dominate the bandstand at all times. He could not take his fingers off the keys no matter who and what was playing around him, whether he was leader or sideman. This was especially true of drummers, his own drummers not excluded: As Miles Davis famously complained, “He leaves no holes for the rhythm section.”
In the past, I have made similar complaints about Allyn Johnson. But you know what? I was wrong. I realized that after hearing him last night at Bohemian Caverns, with drummer and artist in residence Lenny Robinson in the lead.
Make no mistake: Johnson is a busy piano player, and he favors long lines and short rests. But last night, there was not a moment in his playing when he did not appear keenly aware of the drums as he energetically bolstered and responded to them.
Playing a solo on Wayne Shorter‘s “Ana Maria” last night, Johnson attacked with relish, accenting long single-note lines with his own unusual chord voicings. I wondered when he’d take a pause, until I realized he was pausing: at the end of every four- or eight-bar section, to let Robinson insert an end stop. Then, lines themselves took on a new cast: Good as Johnson’s rhythms are, these ones weren’t necessarily his; Machine Gun Lenny was in the driver’s seat. It may have been Johnson’s solo, but he was draping his notes over Robinson’s beats, and on a dime, he’d happily slip beneath and become the drummer’s undercarriage.
That goes for Johnson’s interaction with the bass, too. Kris Funn isn’t easily dominated, but he is a team player. What’s more, he and Johnson have a longstanding project together as two-thirds of The Young Lions. So what could have become a tense competition between two such strong players instead begat harmonic and rhythmic chemistry: Funn and Johnson understood each other on a virtually primal level, and nothing one of them dashed off (even on tricky pieces like “Giant Steps”) seemed to faze or even surprise the other. Soloing on “Ana Maria,” Funn would make sudden turns and downshifts that Johnson always seemed ready for; on Tony Williams‘ “Pee Wee,” Johnson’s stabs left or right would find Funn waiting underneath like an eager infielder.
Critics in any field take pride in being the purveyors of an informed opinion, but honest critics know that their present view, whatever it might be, usually a reflects a stage in the learning process. I can’t completely retract my comparison of Johnson to Peterson: He has incredible speed and technique that make him stand out in a crowded field of D.C. pianists, and extraordinary inventive powers. And yes, he can sometimes cram an awful lot of notes into a little bit of space. (One of these days I’ll give more ink to his harmonic approach, which may actually be superior to Peterson’s.) But my comparisons between the two artists won’t extend to their bandstand behavior.
Perhaps that’s what put Johnson into the directorship of the Jazz Studies Program at UDC. He’s got no shortage of students from outside the program looking to work with him either… and, it’s clear, for good reason. Better reason than I may have let on.