These days it’s possible for any jerk with a Fender Squier, a peace button for a pick and a bootleg copy of Garage Band to create a CD. And wading through the mountains of discordant dreck to find that one diamond in the rough can be daunting, if not downright depressing.
But every once in a blue moon a real gem shines through the dense strata of muck. Such is the case with lightflyte, the debut album of world-class keyboardist and composer Grant Johnson, who goes by the moniker “Captain Fogg.”
From the opening notes of his original composition, “Colors of Fall,” you know you’re in the presence of a consummate jazz virtuoso, one so confident in his abilities that he feels no compulsion to beat you over the head with his expansive technical skills and his compositional brilliance. Though the apparent ease with which Mr. Johnson delivers his material might tempt some listeners to label his music “smooth jazz,” this would be a grievous mistake. For not only are his compositions vastly more harmonically rich than virtually anything in this often hackneyed genre, but his keyboard skills are nothing short of astonishing. (On this and other cuts, Mr. Johnson plays all the parts on his synthesizer, with the exception of occasional drum and conga accompaniment by Kendrick Freeman and vocals on a few of the tunes by a number of excellent singers.)
“Cruisin’ With Monk,” another Johnson original, perfectly captures the sly wit, devious harmonic sensibilities and idiosyncratic phrasing of the great pianist and composer to whom it pays homage. He further demonstrates his affinity for our rich jazz heritage with his interpretation of “All the Things You Are,” where he employs a vibraphone sound on his synthesizer.
To my mind, the highlight of the album is the hypnotic and indescribably luscious “Little Ones,” a composition utilizing shifting modes and pentatonic scales that feel as if they arise directly from the depths of our subconscious. Among the many tunes I wish I had written, “Little Ones” is right at the top of the list.
The album closes with “The Wall Street Rag,” a diabolically clever dissection of the financial meltdown featuring a terrific vocal by Craig Stull. Among the lyrics:
“All we wants, the biggest market share,
Don’t care how we get it, don’t care how we get it,
All we really wants, to conquer the planet,
In the name of freedom,
We’ll wreck the party, get out of the way or die,
‘Cuz we’re here to stay…”
Throughout the album, Mr. Johnson displays a rock-solid grounding in traditional jazz, but he has forged such a distinctive individuality that he never sounds derivative. It is indeed rare to encounter a truly original new voice in jazz, and rarer still to find one that makes such a contribution to our great jazz heritage.
But don’t take my word for it. Check out Grant Johnson’s lightflyte for yourself.