You may not know it, but you’ve probably heard Plas Johnson before. He played the purring sax part on the theme song for the Pink Panther cartoons, laid down the lascivious bedroom horn on Rod Stewart’s 1976 hit, “Tonight’s the Night,” and added romance to three albums Linda Ronstadt made with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra during the 1980s.
His list of unsung performances also includes work with Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones, B. B. King and Ella Fitzgerald. And, from 1970 to 1985, he was part of Merv Griffin’s TV show band.
At heart, though, Johnson is a swinging, soulful jazz and blues man with a big, silky sound of his own, rooted in the earthy playing of his mentors: Illinois Jacquet, Gene Ammons and Don Byas.
At Elario’s on Thursday night, San Diegans got their first taste of Johnson in a club setting when he opened four nights.
Though Johnson, 60, makes a good living backing other artists and touring the Europe festival circuit, he has not made a recording as a leader since 1983. And that self-produced, bluesy excursion, titled “L.A. 55,” is difficult or impossible to come by today.
Now, however, his solo career is showing new signs of life. For the past two years, Johnson has groomed his own red-hot band, including lightning-fingered pianist Cedric Lawson. Bassist Richard Reid and drummer Johnny Kirkwood round out the group.
Earlier this year, they recorded several of Johnson’s favorite standards, and, with the help of a new manager, the saxophonist hopes to land a deal with a major label. Judging from Thursday’ show, any label would be foolish not to sign him.
Johnson came up in the rhythm and blues bands of the early 1950s, and his voice on tenor sax, his main instrument (he also plays alto), is an emotional, crying tone akin to the voice of such great jazz-blues singers as Jimmy Witherspoon.
Johnson doesn’t so much blow a note as he rolls it around on his palate, wringing out every nuance the same way Witherspoon milks a lyric for all it’s worth.
A solid but listless first set included “Sailing,” “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” “There’ll Never Be Another You” and the be-bop mainstay “Back Home in Indiana.” For the second set, Johnson and company were joined by San Diego guitarist Dan Papaila, an old friend of Johnson’s, and the music began to simmer. The room was half empty, but if you closed your eyes, the setting was a get-down blues joint, straining at the seams to contain a slew of bodies writhing to honking, sexy music.
During a short interview between sets, Johnson was asked what he thought of young saxophonists such as Branford Marsalis, who played San Diego a week ago. Johnson complained that many of them possess phenomenal technical skills but no such thing as an original sound. The same can’t be said of Johnson’s honey-smooth approach.
Compared with younger players such as Marsalis, who seem determined to prove their prowess with saxual gymnastics, Johnson uses far fewer notes to attain much greater emotional impact. This was especially evident during such second-set ballads and blues tunes as “This Can’t Be Love,” “Since I Fell for You” and Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait.”
Johnson is a wizard of subtleties, sliding with ease from note to note, bending each one up or down to meet the next, drawing a chosen few notes out to their full emotional length with his delicate vibrato. Not that Johnson doesn’t also possess ample speed. When he wants to, he can hurdle through up-tempo numbers with abandon.
As well as being a first-rate player, Johnson is a humble soul who lets his band mates share the spotlight. Lawson and Papaila, especially, turned in several fine solos.
The diminutive Lawson needs a boost from a telephone book to reach the keyboard, but there is nothing small about his playing. Roaming the full range of the keyboard, his hands are a blur as they produce long, staccato strands of notes reminiscent of the driving attack of McCoy Tyner. Papaila is one of San Diego’s best-kept secrets, possessed of a fluid, bluesy jazz approach that perfectly suits Johnson’s own inclinations. Papaila said he may show up again Sunday night.
Plas Johnson and his band appear at Elario’s tonight and Sunday, with shows at 8:30 and 10:30. Admission is $7.50.