WBGO Radar

Steve Johns: Family

drummer Steve Johns

Steve Johns first sat behind a drum kit at 9. That initial "session" set a course of a life in music, with schooling at The New England Conservatory of Music, on to over 3 decades of inventive time keeping with Sonny Fortune, Nat Adderley, Stanley Turrentine, Benny Carter, Randy Brecker, Larry Coryell, Jimmy Owens, Ronnie Cuber and Dr. Billy Taylor. Johns has over seventy sideman record dates to his credit, and co-leads the group Native Soul.

Considering this, it's a real surprise that Family is his first session as leader. It's titled "Family" as it features son Daryl on bass, wife Debbie Keefe Johns on saxophones and brothers from other mothers, guitarists Bob DeVos and Dave Stryker, who also produced the date for his Strikezone label.

Steve explained the reason for the recording by saying, "I've reached a pivotal  point where our son is leaving for studies at Manhattan School of Music. I wanted to capture our magic as a musical family in a bottle, so the CD idea was born."

Right away, the thought of a vanity project disappears when the first cut, "Sleepwalk" hits you. Written in the middle of the night by the leader, it's a bluesy strutter with Debbie, Dave and Daryl all hitting the mark with enthusiastic solos.

"So You Say," written by Jeff Holmes, shows the seamless transitions and threads every group strives for. Daryl's electric bass in tandem with his Dad's tasteful syncopation bond for Devos' guitar and Debbie Johns' saxophone to build the intensity of the piece.

Stryker's "Shadowboxing," Dave says, "is the kind of groove Steve and I would jam on in people's apartments when we both first came to New York." Stryker fires it up, followed by Debbie Johns exploring. Daryl's imaginative bass work demonstrates the acclaim he's received while still in his teens. At a blistering pace, the leader shows his stuff.

Capturing the aura of a 1940s film noir, "Bogie and Bacall" is an easy, late night ride, where a little rain, Stryker's acoustic guitar, Daryl's bass and Debbie's sax paint the picture in haunting fashion. This one's just waiting for the right film.

Dave Stryker describes his "Came To Believe" as "swunk." As the leader agrees, "it's swingin' on top and funky on the bottom." His self described undulating pulses push Stryker, Daryl and Debbie to make you believe in this one.

"Mixing" is a piece by master Brazilian percussionist Airto Moeira, and appeared on his first recording, "Natural Feelings" in 1970. New clothes for this one as Debbie shows her soprano sax skill, Daryl plugs in and Stryker unplugs for a nice back and forth with the leader's rhythmic inventions.

Thinking of Wayne Shorter's "Orientale Folk Song" meeting Stanley Turrentine, Bob Devos wrote "Shell Game." Devos' guitar does an easy swing with Debbie's tenor, Daryl's walking bass and Steve's bluesful touch.

"Chunk" a collaboration between Steve and Jeff Holmes moves seamlessly between 4/4 and 5/8 time. Devos warms up nicely here. The syncopation is infectious.

Unlike most family get togethers, the Johns clan has a lot to say, and many will enjoy their tales.

Family comes out May 5th.

   - Gary Walker, WBGO music director

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