The Pacific Coast Jazz label has produced a steady stream of laid-back contemporary jazz albums, and Norman Johnson’s sophomore solo effort Get It While You Can is no exception. As on his 2010 debut If Time Stood Still, Johnson displays his subtle and classic guitar skills on a variety of original tunes and covers. Smooth jazz fans will want to seek out this artist and album.
Johnson’s credentials are impressive — he serves as Dean of the Hartford Conservatory of Music and Dance in Connecticut, owns his own recording studio Manor Studios, and is currently collaborating with Dave Brubeck’s sons Chris and Dan. Before that, he functioned as a top session musician for such notable artists as Dave Brubeck, Bill Mays, and Steve Gadd. Originally hailing from Kingston, Jamaica, Johnson brings a distinctly R&B sensibility to his brand of jazz.
On this outing, Johnson particularly shines on rock and soul covers. He executes simply effective guitar solos on “That’s the Way of the World”; he also enlivens the Earth, Wind and Fire classic by playing a funky bass line. In addition, Johnson’s clear, bright notes mimic the original vocals on the Beatles’ “Got to Get You into My Life”; as a bonus, he adds some jazzy chord changes to demonstrate how the Beatles can be translated into different musical genres. The standout here is his interpretation of Aretha Franklin’s “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” with his crisp guitar lines interacting perfectly with Anthony Cusano’s groove-laden drums.
The rest the album tracks, excluding “Saudade” and “Pack It Up,” are Johnson compositions. “Danza Dance” incorporates his love of Puerto Rican music with contemporary jazz, and the percussion, flute, piano, and guitar flow well together to create a lush tropical landscape. Johnson plays guitar, bass, and piano on the track, while Ali Ryerson performs a bright flute solo. Round out the lineup with Cusano and Ed Fast on percussion, and the effect is a sonic trip to the balmy beach.
Most of Get It While You Can consists of instrumentals, the sole exception being “Saudade.” Written by blue-eyed soul singer Grayson Hugh (who scored a 1989 hit with “Talk It Over”), the lyric involves that word sung repeatedly throughout the tune. It’s a moody piece, with the rhythm relying heavily on Johnson’s guitar. The track epitomizes one problem area: Get It While You Can weighs heavily toward instrumentals to the point of redundancy. Having a vocalist grace some songs would have provided the album more variety and interest.
Despite this element, Get It While You Can expands upon Johnson’s repertoire as a contemporary jazz artist. His ability to navigate jazz, R&B, rock, and world music remains impressive, and his covers of well-known classics should earn him some smooth jazz radio airplay. His versatility is his strength, and future albums should further capitalize on his talents by letting him incorporate vocals and original lyrics.