Saxophonist, composer, and actor Calvin Johnson Jr. has one of the most soulful, bluesy tenor saxophone tones heard in recent memory. This is not at all surprising given the third-generation New Orleanian’s environment, raised from birth on the sounds of the city’s bandstands, eventually becoming a member of both the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Consider this – he graduated in 2003 from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA where his classmates included Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Jon Batiste, and Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah. This self-released statement, Notes of a Native Son, chronicles his journey, paying tribute to his elders and his rich musical development. This is Johnson Jr.’s third album as a leader and from the opening notes is distinctively a pean to the Crescent City with the album almost evenly split between originals (the first album where he did most of the writing and arranging) and well-chosen covers.
Johnson Jr. sings too as heard on the familiar opener, the classic “I’m Walking,” from Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew. When he enters with his horn, he swings with abandon, leading a quartet of pianist Ryan Hanseler, bassist Peter Harris and drummers Trenton O’Neal, Alfred Jordan, and Thomas Glass who split the duties. Other contributors include vocalist Erica Falls who absolutely thrills on “Streetcar Love,” and Jennie Brent (violin, viola), Evan Washington (electric bass, piano), Gabrielle Fischer (cello), and D’Wayne Muhammad (percussion), the latter four appearing on the closing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Johnson Jr. plays tenor and soprano.
One of the strongest and certainly the most indelible song is his co-written “Streetcar Love,” a story remembered from his childhood about the daydream of a young boy who meets his yet-unknown sweetheart on a streetcar. Again, Erica Falls is breathtaking with a voice soaring to heavenly heights. Johnson Jr. decides, rather than try to match her captivating upper octave delivery, to deliver a thoughtful, soulful statement so as not to upstage her. His tenor solo on his original ballad “Jewel’s Lullaby,” on the other hand, maybe the most shining example of his emotive style. It was written when his daughter was a newborn and captures those feelings moving from awe, doting care, to exhilarating joy as pianist Hanseler fills the spaces perfectly with touching notes and chords.
Johnson Jr.’s “Anova” has him swinging to the steady beats of O’Neal with a pause of sorts before taking flight with endless runs of notes midway through, yielding to a shimmering piano solo from Hanseler that also builds in intensity before the leader re-enters forcibly. Similarly, his original “Resistance Is Nobel but Defeat Is Imminent” ebbs and flows, reaching a boiling point at the halfway point before Hanseler steadily develops another glowing, poignant statement. When the saxophonist re-enters, he is more declarative in tone, eventually concluding the tune with the slow plodding tempo befitting the sloped shoulder body language of a defeated adversary.
“Treme” brings the percussion associated with Congo Square and touches on some of the themes of the relatively short-lived HBO series of the same name. Johnson Jr. glides through with exceptional lyricism while Hanseler comps percussively. “Summertime” becomes a vehicle for Johnson Jr.’s soprano, where he delivers the melody with the depth and nuance of a vocalist. The closer, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has the leader’s expressive tenor plowing through shrouds of strings and multiple keyboards, ever glowing and triumphant, in keeping with the gospel nature of the standard.
This is a keeper for those who love New Orleans music, yet, this writer’s major takeaway is Johnson’s Jr.’s command of his instrument, impeccably lyrical and soulful throughout.