Jazz Reviews : Guitarist Henry Johnson’s Split Personality

Henry Johnson, the guitarist who came to prominence in the Joe Williams backup group, was presented Thursday as part of the live action in the JazzTimes Convention at the Sheraton-Universal Hotel.

Like many jazz artists today who are attempting to straddle the line between the pure and the popular, Johnson displays a split personality. There were times when the benign influences of Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery surfaced most effectively, as Johnson moved with ease through the improvisational concepts of those long-gone pioneers.

At other points, both the compositions and his solos seemed as though they had been designed to please the merchandisers, the salesmen and promoters. Backed by Bob Long on piano, Robert Gates on drums and Frank Russell on electric bass, he fell into cliches, among them one of those multi-tag endings that threatened to last all weekend. Presumably in the hope of becoming another George Benson, Johnson also occasionally sang with modest competence.

Slick production may have attenuated the impact of Johnson’s unquestionable talent, but it has certainly not ruined him. A blues number with a bridge found him at his loosest; even Long, suffering from an atrocious piano, came up with an interesting though hard-hammered solo.


During a later set, Johnson was joined on stage by some of his MCA Records stablemates. Since they obviously had not rehearsed, Keiko Matsui with her clavinet, Justo Almario and Michael Paulo on tenor and alto saxes respectively, and a very busy guitarist named David Becker were all reduced (elevated would really be a better word) to playing the blues.

This made for some spirited jamming until the saxes, and then the guitarist, decided to abandon taste and innovation in favor of crowd-milking fast-finger exercises. Nevertheless, this lengthy ad lib workout provided some of the more unaffected music in a session that seemed oddly in need of a sense of direction.