January 19, 2006

Gail Jhonson - Keep The Music Playing

Welcome to the latest issue of Denis Poole’s Secret Garden, the page that offers a British perspective on all that’s good, and not so good, in the world of smooth jazz and classic soul. Writer, producer and keyboard player Gail Jhonson is someone for whom the accolades of multi talented and multi faceted hardly seem adequate. Currently dividing her time between her staff position at the Musician's Institute in Hollywood, CA, and her role as musical director and touring keyboard playing for smooth jazz superstar Norman Brown, Jhonson also has her very own CD, Keep the Music Playing, on release. This follow up to her debut album It’s About Time came out in 2004 and is a wonderful collection of edgy smooth jazz tunes that deserves to make her stand out from the crowd.

jhonson.jpgBorn and raised in the city of Philadelphia, Gail Denise Johnson, who now records under the name of Gail Jhonson, began playing piano at the age of ten. By age fourteen she had played her first gig and went on to study at Berklee College of Music where she received a BA in composition. In 1985 she left her Germantown PA home and headed west to audition for Morris Day and the Time. Johnson got the gig and made her home in L.A. where she now remains. She has toured, performed and recorded with many soul and smooth jazz greats, a list that includes Vanessa Williams, Mindy Abair, Jermaine Jackson, Bobby Womack, Ray Parker jr., Howard Hewitt, Bobby Lyle, Brian Culbertson, OC Smith, Paul Jackson jr., Pamela Williams, Phil Perry and, believe it or not, Milli Vanilli. Her various television performances include: BET on Jazz, MTV, Soul Train, The Arsenio Hall Show and The Tonight Show. If that wasn’t enough she has also written two books, "Funk Keyboards - The Complete Method: A Contemporary Guide to Chords, Rhythms and Licks" and "Dictionary of Keyboard Grooves: The Complete Source for Loops, Patterns & Sequences in All Popular Styles."

Gail also has a love for theatre, particularly, Gospel Musicals. Her first professional experience was as a piano substitute in the stage play ‘Eubie’ at the Ivar Theatre, Hollywood and she went on to play for the Langston Hughes play, ‘Tambourines To Glory’ at the Bradley Theatre in Los Angeles. She was also the director music for the gospel performances ‘Saving Grace’ and ‘Reason For The Season’ which were both written by Dennis Rowe.

Now, with Keep the Music Playing, she is stepping up front and center to embrace the spotlight with a performance the quality of which suggests she is on the way to becoming a major player in the ultra competitive world of smooth jazz keyboard. Following a twenty one second intro with the message of practice will make perfect, the tone of the album is immediately set with the first track, ‘Just For Kicks’. It is super tight, has just a hint of a Latin vibe and is a fine example of smooth jazz piano at its very smoothest. Smooth with attitude would be a nice way of describing the entire CD and this is again demonstrated on the tune ‘Soleh’. One of three tracks featuring guitarist Norman Brown, Jhonson is able to make it sound melodic, mellow and funky all at the same time.

Sensitivity is never neglected and Gail’s playing on the timeless and evocative Legrand – Bergman composition ‘How Do You Keep The Music Playing’ is simply awesome. Equally beautiful is ‘Goodnight’, a piece of romantic smooth jazz at its very best to which Jhonson applies the lightest of touches. The first cut from the album to be identified for radio play is ‘Heaven’ where excellent smooth jazz piano from Jhonson is infused with urgent backing vocals courtesy of Charlia Boyer, Michael Thompson and Calvin Perry. Boyer also steps up, this time on both lead and backing vocals, for ‘I Wanna Luv U’, an infectious chunk of smooth R & B that is afforded a sparkling backdrop by Jhonson’s tight playing.

The Norman Whitfield composition ‘Sunrise’, from the soundtrack of the movie ‘Car Wash’, is included as a tribute to the late Brandi Wells. Jhonson played her first tour with Wells and this rendition, blessed by the vocals of Vidais Lovette and the saxophone of fellow Philly native Pamela Williams, is a track that feels as good as a warm summer day. Also from the vaults comes the Detroit Spinners classic ‘I’ll Be Around’. This ultra tight production proves the point that when done this well ‘covers’ can be a distinctly good thing. Pamela Williams also features on the superb smooth jazz tune ‘Tropical Island’ while the big groove driven ‘Take What You Need’ is a number with excellent melodic playing from Jhonson and a great beat. It has ‘radio ready’ written all over it.

Arguably the best track on the album is the mega funky ‘Gimme Your Groove’. With more superb sax from Pamela Williams and a rock solid beat this is a blockbuster of the highest order.

For me the music of Gail Jhonson was one of the finds of 2005. For more information go to www.gailjhonson.com

Do you have any comments on what you have found in this edition of the Secret Garden? If so please contact the Smooth Jazz Vibes Guest Book or e-mail me on DenisPoole2000@Yahoo.com.

Posted by Denis Poole at January 19, 2006 11:36 AM