Gail Jhonson - Pearls  (Nu Groove)

late night rendezvousIt’s always exciting when powerhouse talents like Philly native Gail Jhonson break through the boys club of urban-oriented smooth jazz and give the guys a run for their money. Mindi Abair and Candy Dulfer are legendary in the genre, Pamela Williams has been a huge force for years and this year, we’ve got Jessy J keeping the women’s club strong. Joyce Cooling’s also held her own the past ten years with her cool vibe and solid guitar playing. But until Jhonson, the genre has lacked a woman who can really jam on the keyboards. Pearls, the follow-up to her 2005 CD Keep The Music Playing, and her debut on the growing label Nu Groove, is easily one of the best indie jazz CDs of the year and will no doubt launch her to stardom.
If you’re listening to this perfectly titled disc and digging Jhonson’s stellar mix of true jazz chops, catchy melodies and easy funk grooves and wondering how she came to hook up with so many cool heavyweights (James Lloyd of Pieces of a Dream, Paul Brown, Marion Meadows, Nelson Braxton of The Braxton Brothers and Norman Brown), you haven’t been paying attention to one of the hottest bands in smooth jazz. Johnson, whose resume boasts everyone from Pink and Bobby Womack to Vanessa Williams, has been the keyboardist, music director and backing vocalist these past few years for one of the genre’s most popular tours, Norman Brown’s Summer Storm. Sure, it’s easy to take her dazzling keyboard magic for granted when she’s playing behind vocal superstars like Peabo Bryson and Patti Austin and instrumental greats like Paul Taylor and Jeff Lorber—not to mention Norman. But it’s clear to anyone who has listened to her diverse playing that Jhonson has been a solo star ready to emerge for a long time.

Pearls, whose cover features the musician’s fabulous smile and a dazzling, tangled pearl necklace, starts off coolly, with the easy grooving, Braxton-produced “Pacific Breeze” (which shows off Jhonson’s melodic skills more than her true jazz playing), the sensual, mid-tempo Lloyd composed and produced “My Soldier” and the quirky, moody and romantic retro soul original “Silky Slide” (with Paul Brown on guitar). These are followed by Jhonson’s lush and beautiful “Moments of Love.” These tracks are all radio friendly but constitute something of a slow build towards a series of later songs that really show off her improvisational abilities (“Whisper Yours,” “Let’s Do This”) and what she can do with a bouncy, high energy groove (the Lloyd-helmed throwdown “Sisters”). The title that sums up the overall vibe of Pearls is “Feel Good Groove,” a catchy track that brims with low key funk energy and old school soul atmospheres. “Miles Away” combines groove, a richly emotional, almost hypnotic melody and soaring elegance. The title track features Jhonson and Meadows’ wistful sax blending perfectly over hip, crunchy shuffle rhythms. The collection chills nicely at the end on “Soleh,” with Jhonson creating a Lorber styled Rhodes melody over swirling synth atmospheres, all complemented by Norman Brown’s crisp and eloquent as always guitar lines.

As strong as Pearls is, it would be even better had Jhonson dug a little deeper into her gospel background, added more touches of rockin’ blues and put some more up-tempo crowd pleasers like “Sisters” in the mix. Still, it’s great see her break from the background and step up with a disc that’s pretty impossible to resist and totally captures the New Urban Jazz sound Bob Baldwin’s been talking about.


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- Jonathan Widran