The last time New Orleanian saxophonist Clarence Johnson III made a record, it was still the 1900s. Getting married, starting a family, losing his home to Hurricane Katrina and relocating to Atlanta preoccupied Johnson, among other things. Now he’s set to follow up on his 1998 straight-ahead date Dedicated to You with a contemporary jazz record, Watch Him Work.
Why the reinvention of an acoustic mainstream jazz cat as an RnB inflected smooth jazz practitioner? Johnson explains, “the direction of the music exhibits the things that I’ve gong through, the things that have made me mature and grow up.” Now in his late 30s and confident in his direction, the music he makes is the music of his state of mind.
Going from the hard stuff to the smooth stuff might not sit well with certain members of New Orleans jazz royalty (*cough* Wynton *cough* *cough*), but I think Johnson is simply following his muse, a feeling I get right from the first, title track of his upcoming album. Does the song have a bass-poppin’, danceable groove? You bet it does. But Johnson didn’t forsake his jazz fundamentals, either. “Watch Him Work” has a modern, electric punch that can be traced straight back to the Jazz Messengers, and unlike most of his pop-jazz brethren, Johnson actually invests in improvisation. He’s got a distinctive sax style that’s very expressive, especially in the way he bends his notes, and he has a wide vibrato. The chorus is one brash brass section where his saxes are accompanied by a trumpet and trombone.
Johnson wrote most of the other tunes on Work, full of catchy melodies in the contemporary soul-jazz mode with enough of an organic feel and energy that forces its way up front, not content with being generic background music. Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass” gets a funky, creative makeover, too.
You can probably watch Clarence Johnson III work in the Atlanta area, or with this consistently rewarding long player, enjoy listening to him play. Either way, Johnson’s return to record making is a welcome one.
Watch Him Work is set for release on November 5.