Henry Johnson

Room 43, Chicago, IL
February 20, 2011

Henry Johnson

Story and Photos by James Walker, Jr., Copyright 2011

The Hyde Park Jazz Society is once again operating out of Room 43 on 43rd. Street after being silent for several weeks by the City over a liquor license issue. Needless to say, the many loyal South Side jazz aficionados are elated to have this popular gig back and world class guitarist/vocalist Henry Johnson and his quartet certainly did not disappoint this enthusiastic crowd on February 20th with an array of soulful jazz tunes and standards. Johnson was joined by a couple of his longtime partners, bassist Frank Russell, drummer Robert Gates and young keyboard phenom Greg Spero.

Johnson fronts several aggregations around the Chicago area, but this group (minus Spero) performed with him regularly years ago, and on this night they were as "tight" as ever. Johnson's background includes stints with legends Joe Williams, Nancy Wilson, and Donny Hathaway to just name a few, but it's always a pleasure to hear his sound in such pristine surroundings with some of his best friends.

The entire night was simply spectacular as this group took it's time setting up numbers and taking turns on long extended solos without stepping on one another''s notes. Keyboardist Spero, often seen with Russell, but performing for the first time with Johnson, nearly "stole" the show with his rapid fire lines and repeated licks that often resulted in rousing ovations from this unsuspecting crowd. Spero has been showcasing his skills in recent years with Russell and his group, Corey Wilkes' Black Slang, and often fronting his own band. He continues to show growth as a musician and composer and certainly gained many new fans with every stroke on the 88s.

Johnson and Russell are long time friends and playing together is second nature for these two. They make such sweet music together while apparently having big fun in the process. During the first set, highlights included Johnson's composition of "Mr. Montgomery," which was written for Wes Montgomery, and "Poinciana", a number that was immortalized by Ahmad Jamal and recorded by Russell on his first CD. When Johnson wasn't working overtime with his fleet fingers, Russell was putting his "thunder thumps"  in overdrive. What a sight to see him slide up and down on his bass with ease and perfection. They concluded this set with "Take Five" at breakneck speed as each ensemble member improvised with long extended solos.

The beginning of 2nd set was a continuation of the fine music that was produced during the first hour with the addition of leader Johnson using his vocal instrument and the guitar. He took his time to honor the late great Donny Hathaway with "Singing this Song For You," and "What's Going On." Johnson admitted to his not usually including these numbers in his program, but had the time and urge on this evening to stretch and pay homage to Hathaway. Johnson played in Hathaway's last band.

Other selections this set included "Spellbound," where Johnson unleashed his staggering string facility with reckless abandon. They concluded this fine evening of music with Sonny Rollins "Oh Yea," which allowed all to finish with a bang and featured spectacular drumming by Gates.

Hyde Park Jazz Society is back and promises to feature some of Chicago's finest each Sunday evening at Room 43. For detailed information regarding future sets, refer to their website at www.hydeparkjazzsociety.com.

Frank Russell

Henry Johnson

Greg Spero

Robert Gates

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