Someone unknown to me — a generous anonymous benefactor — has posted on YouTube two of the irreplaceable 1939 piano solos by James P. Johnson. I think they are uplifting creations that never grow over-familiar.
BLUEBERRY RHYME, Johnson’s own musing original composition, has not only several strains but feels multi-layered, as if two moods were moving along in time and sound throughout the piece. One is sweetly, sadly ruminative — thoughts of a solitary seeker in a meadow, perhaps, with calm and loss intermingled. The other is joyous — all of James P.’s most elegant trickeries offered to us at half-speed and half-volume, so that we could think, for an evanescent moment, “Hey, I could play the piano like that if I only practiced.” In this stratum, we hear what so many pianists — Tatum, Fats, Basie — worshipped and borrowed from him. (There’s a tinkling figure at :20 that Tatum nipped off with and made his own.)
Is BLUEBERRY RHYME sweet thoughts of home, or of a love that might have been, musings on a pie, or something private to James P.? We cannot know, but we can enter this world for a few minutes, its gently rocking motions and lingering melodies both comforting and elusive.
BLUEBERRY RHYME is followed by one of my favorite interludes, a joyous yet stately romp on Edgar Sampson’s IF DREAMS COME TRUE. This recording has been one of my consolations and dear musical friends for perhaps forty-five years, and it not only provides happiness but embodies it. Within the first ten seconds — that prancing bassline, the treble chords announcing the melody — we know we are somewhere elation is the common language, where all will be given over to the dance.
Each chorus is a complete utterance in itself, and each chorus’ variations look backwards to its predecessor and anticipate what is to come. Stride piano is also misunderstood by some as a metronomic left hand with a freer but rhythmically-obedient right hand creating variations in its own realm, but notice the playful elasticity between the steady bass lines and the widening rhythmic freedom of the treble, in a playful push-and-pull that we feel as the performance continues. The dance gets more and more ambitious, but James P.’s time and volume are both steady delights, and form is never abandoned.
Compare, for instance, the opening chorus where the melody is explicitly stated in contract to what happens at 5:30, magical in itself. Although the performance has offered a certain ornateness, the thrilling competitive display the Harlem players loved, here James P. seems to pull back into softer enigmatic utterances, offering space and an abstraction of what he has been playing instead of attempting to dazzle the hearer even more. And the three ascending chords at 6:19! So simple and yet so memorable. On my admittedly untuned piano, they are a C, D, and E — the first do re mi of a beginning student, but what ringing sounds they are here.
Should I end my days in a hospice, I hope I will have these recordings with me to take on the journey. And I exult in them now.
Hear for yourself:
Coincidentally, James P. was the subject of a brief cyber-discussion the fine pianist Michael Bank and I were having, and Michael (lyrical in prose and music) wrote that James P. “creates a portal to the universe.” James P. Johnson was and is his own universe, vast, inviting, heartfelt. How fortunate we are to hear such beauty!
(Blessings on the often-imperious John Hammond, who booked the studio time in 1939 to make these recordings and treasured them when Columbia Records would not issue them, saving them for future generations.)
I have heard that Mosaic Records is preparing a James P. Johnson set. Talk about DREAMS coming true.
May your happiness increase!