Chill out hepcat and dig them crazy singing strings. If impressively smooth guitar sounds are your thing, then Johnny A. is your main man. Whatever your particular flavor of preference: jazz, blues, country, rockabilly, surf — just name it. This Boston guitarist’s solo debut displays a diverse range of talent and technique spread across a wide array of styles. In addition, Mr. A. possesses a flair for showmanship without going overboard, along with an innate sensitivity to the music.
Having weighed in playing with Santana percussionist Mingo Lewis, keyboardist Bobby Whitlock and most recently, as sideman for ex-J.Geils Band solo talent Peter Wolf, Johnny A. has made a name for himself in Boston clubs. Now he leads his own trio, with Ed Spargo on electric bass and Craig McIntyre on drums, and does so admirably.
The production on Sometime Tuesday Morning is simple and clean, tastefully straightforward and polished, never relying on tricks when talent will do. This collection of instrumentals is comprised of a healthy mix of original tunes and covers, in a two-to-one ratio. While originally a self-release, this CD gained a strong fan base locally, and now Steve Vai has re-released it on his own label for a wider audience.
Mr. A. grew up with a Greek name whose syllables got lost in the shuffle. Originally trained as a drummer, he switched over to guitar fairly early on and became more of a self-styled pop-rock guy than a jazz guitarist. As such, he didn’t really fit into the prevailing culture when he gave Berklee School of Music a shot. Instead, A. chose to play it by ear and went on the road, learning by doing and vice versa.
Mr. A. always admired the kind of lounge guy who could play a song on guitar by himself sans vocals and still manage to capture the vibe of what that particular song is about. He wanted to be that guy. More than just mere technique, what he was after was a way to let the guitar be the voice and provide a feel for the music. And so he set out on his quest, teaching himself to read music, eager to incorporate melody and arrangement all into the guitar line.
The good news is this: he’s become that guy. The proof is here for all to hear: this album is the very embodiment of guitar as voice. You get a wide variety of tasteful and warm sounds, with flavors changing to “soul” or “street” as a particular composition warrants, accurately capturing the feel of each song. Mr. A. uses his collection of Gibson guitars (from the classic ES-295 to custom Les Pauls), a bajo sexto and some lap steel played through his Marshall amp to stretch his range far beyond what anyone might have expected, if one were to judge by his resume alone.
Instead, A. does a fine job of adapting the styles of many a guitar master and making them uniquely his own. His light picking jumps out at you, combining hard edge and finesse, notes and chords, all in the service of the song. And what a variety of songs there are here.
The title track leads off the proceedings in a jazzy manner, tremolo-tinged guitar work offering up a textured soundtrack of smoke-filled bar and intrigue. Listen to how many different tones A. gets out of one song. “Oh Yeah” shifts gears into finger-snapping 1950s jazz/funk territory, allowing A. to show his chops in a style that recalls the great Danny Gatton and his Hellecasters as well as other jazz greats like Joe Satriani and Pat Martino.
The marvelous cover of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” takes its time and lets the guitar’s qualities fill the spaces gently, managing to convey great emotional range. Every sensitive nuance reflects the melancholy of the quiet desperation of the lineman’s tale, and all this is achieved with nary a single word. Similarly, the cover of Lennon/McCartney’s “Yes It Is” takes a more obscure Beatles tune and, with confident skill, uses both chords and single lines effectively to capture the quietly hopeful mood inherent in the song.
The other covers also are worth noting. Mr. A. gives the J.H. Smith (Ventures) surf-rock standard “Walk Don’t Run” an injection of Latin flavor. It works surprisingly well, making the old tune stand up and get your attention anew, respecting its roots while redefining its range. “You Don’t Love Me” gives a very bluesy take on the Willie Cobb classic made popular by the Allman Brothers. Here you get some pedal work and some hints of Wes Montgomery, some Eric Clapton, some Stevie Ray Vaughan, some Jeff Beck. It’s hard to say which individual ingredients combine where in the final puree of guitar sound.
“Walkin’ West Avenue” could be Kenny Burrell or Carlos Santana at times. “Two Wheel Horse” takes things into a flat-out bluesy rocking realm, while “Two Wheel Horse” and “Tex Critter” invoke the country guitar spirit of the late great Chet Atkins, along with a little Joe Maphis, some James Burton and a hint of Roy Clark.
It’s as if a great many notable guitar sounds have been captured and filtered through a very fine sensibility that respects the music. As much as the guitar-work here is impressive, it’s still about the well-picked songs. From swing to lounge to jazz, to pop, blues, rockabilly and country, there is personality and fun to the expressive guitar parts and it translates through to the listener.
The techniques and tones serve the songs first and foremost, economically and precisely managing to evoke separate musical personalities. Johnny A. has done his homework and managed to meld the past with the present. He culls from the greats of guitar history, yet still makes this understated sound his own. There are no vocals, and yet there’s never a lack of genuine melodic emotive voice.
Sometime Tuesday Morning is a great CD for any music fan, not only your snobbish guitar fanatics. Listen and you’ll hear that tasteful lounge guy that Johnny A. admires so much. He’s in command of his interpretive abilities, stretching his guitar to its limits, impressing in a way that seems rote and second-nature, never contrived.