Saturday, 2 January 2016

"Moonshadows/Yesterday's Dreams/Spellbound" by ALPHONSO JOHNSON (2015 Beat Goes On 2CD Remasters) - A Review by Mark Barry...



"…To Thine Own Self Be True…"

Philly-born virtuoso ALPHONSO JOHNSON was only 23 when he replaced Weather Report’s Miroslav Vituos on Bass in early 1974 and was soon after to also play with Fusion Giants George Duke and Stanley Clarke on their solo projects. By the time he got to 1976 - and with a little help from Weather Report stalwarts like Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter (Zawinul once described Johnson as "...disciplined…could lay down a groove that hurt…") – Columbia Records gave him a shot and he promptly popped out three Funk-Fusion LPs on their Epic Records imprint – "Moonshadows" and "Yesterday's Dreams" (both from 1976) and "Spellbound" (from 1977). The hugely revered first two were never issued in the UK (the 3rd was) and have been elusive on CD for decades. And that's where this gorgeous-sounding Beat Goes On 2CD Remaster comes in. Here are the funk-that-hurts details…

UK released 27 November 2015 (December 2015 in the USA) – "Moonshadows/Yesterday's Dreams/Spellbound" by ALPHONSO JOHNSON on Beat Goes On BGOCD 1220 (Barcode 5017261212207) offers 3LPs on 2CDs and plays out as follows:

Disc 1 (40:48 minutes):
1. Slump
2. Involuntary Bliss
3. Cosmoba Place
4. Pandora's Box
5. Up From The Cellar [Side 2]
6. Amarteifio
7. On The Case
8. Unto Thine Own Self Be True
Tracks 1 to 8 are his debut album "Moonshadows" – released 1976 in the USA on Epic Records PE 34118 (no UK release)

Players included:
ALPHONSO JOHNSON – Basses, Electric Stick and Vocals
DAWILLI GONGA – Keyboards & Vocals
PATRICE RUSHEN – Keyboards
IAN UNDERWOOD – Keyboards & Synth Programming
ALPHONSE MOUZON – Orchestron Voice Choir Keyboard
GARY BARTZ – Soprano Saxophone
DAVID AMARO, LEE RITENOUR, CHRIS BOND and BLACKBIRD McKnight – Guitars
FLORA PURIM – Backing Vocals on "Involuntary Bliss", "Up From The Cellar" and "Upon Thine Own Self Be True" with Lead Vocals on "Amarteifio"
BENNIE MAUPIN – Reeds
ALEJANDRO ACUNA and AIRTO MOREIRA – Percussion
NARADA MICHAEL WALDEN – Drums & Keyboards
NDUGU LEON CHANCLER – Drums

Disc 2 (71:34 minutes):
1. Love's The Way I Feel 'Bout Cha
2. As Little As You
3. Scapegoat
4. Show Us The Way
5. Balls To The Wall [Side 2]
6. Tales Of Barcelona
7. Flight To Hampstead Heath
8. One To One
Tracks 1 to 8 are his second album "Yesterday's Dreams" – released 1976 in the USA on Epic PE 34364 (no UK release)

Players included:
ALPHONSO JOHNSON – Basses, Electric Stick, Acoustic Guitar and Vocals
FLORA PURIM, JON LUCIEN, PHILIP BAILEY & DIANNE REEVES - Vocals
RAY GOMEZ and LEE RITENOUR – Electric & Acoustic Guitars
PATRICE RUSHEN – Keyboards
MARK JORDAN and DAVID FOSTER – Keyboards
IAN UNDERWOOD – Synths
SHEILA ESCOVEDO – Congas & Percussion
RUTH UNDERWOOD - Harpophone, Orchestra Bells, Marimbas & Vibraphone
GROVER WASHINGTON, JR., ERNIE WATTS & ERNIE FIELDS – Saxophones
CHUCK FINDLEY and GARY GRANT – Trumpets
GEORGE BOHANON and GARNETT BROWN – Trombones
CHESTER THOMPSON and MICK CLARK – Drums

9. Summer Solstice (First Movement)
10. Follow Your Heart
11. Bahama Mama
12. Nomads
13. Moonlight Conversations
14. Face Blaster [Side 2]
15. Feelings Are… (The Hardest Words To Say)
16. Earthtales Suite: Intro – Winter Solstice
I - Release From Bondage
II – Why
III – Voice Of Authority
IV Rushing Of The Wind
V – Sword And The Scepter
VI – Summer Solstice (Second Movement)
Tracks 9 to 16 are this third album "Spellbound" – released 1977 in the USA on Epic Records JE 34869 and in the UK on Epic S EPC 82197

The outer card slipcase lends the release a classy feel, the 24-page booklet is packed with album-by-album credits and new liner notes from noted writer CHARLES WARING – a regular contributor to Mojo and Record Collector. ANDREW THOMPSON has carried out the new 2015 Remasters licensed from Sony and the Audio here is stupendous – beautifully clear and reflecting the original top-class production values of Skip Drinkwater (Johnson did the 3rd set himself).

As you can see from the 'Players' lists given above – the guest names of talent featured for each record is astonishing – a virtual who's who of Jazz Funk talent with Johnson providing the Funky Bass backdrop. And they’re not just window-dressing either. The debut album opens with "Strump" and "Involuntary Bliss" – Funk workouts on a Jazz-tip that feel amazingly 'now' rather than 1976. Entering the territory of sublime Jazz/Soul/Fusion is the gorgeous sea-and-gulls ballad "Amarteifio" – the only song on the album with lyrics that Flora Purim slays in her path with her Soulful swoops and phrasing (lyrics reproduced in the booklet). It's a true highlight on a great album. It gets seriously funky with the bass-led "On The Case" where Johnson goes all slap stick wild in the first passage followed by Lee Ritenour letting rip on his axe for the second part (wonderful playing). It ends on a piece of joyous fusion that’s so Narada Michael Walden – Flora singing the title as a backing refrain while Dawilli Gonga plays a blinder on various keyboards.

Wisely trying for a more commercial angle - the number of vocalists increased for album number two "Yesterday's Dream" – released at the end of 1976. "Love's The Way I Feel 'Bout Cha" might as well be Con Funk Shun with Dianne Reeves and Philip Bailey on Vocals (lyrics in the booklet). Keyboard genius Patrice Rushen fills up both "As Little as You" and "Scapegoat" with her skills - while Grover Washington Jr. plays his horn. Jon Lucien adds his deep voice to "Show Us The Way" as Ritenour skilfully plucks the Acoustic Guitar. But my fave on here is the beautiful instrumental "Flight To Hampstead Heath" – a mid-tempo builder that feels more Prog Jazz than Fusion.

Prog dominates the opening "Summer Solstice (First Movement)" and for that matter much of the "Spellbound” album - sounding more like Jon Anderson has gone Jazz (but not in a good way). Guitarist Pat Thrall provides the Guitar Solos for "Follow Your Heart", "Bahama Mama", "Face Blaster" and "Feelings Are…" But it was a big mistake to forego the various quality vocalists that made the first two albums so good for his larynx on album number three. Johnson's voice is decidedly ordinary compared to what went before – and this is never more evident than on "Nomads" – a nice tune rendered impotent by his flat delivery. The short but pretty instrumental "Moonlight Conversations" features lovely playing from the other featured guitarist on the album – Kevin Shireve. It ends on the near nine-minute "Earthtales Suite" – a complicated but ultimately boring piece that unfortunately sums up the whole LP – virtuosity without any heart or tunes…

Jazz Fusion and Funk fans will love the first two albums – especially as neither received a UK release – but that third record rather lets the side down. Still – with its superb presentation and gorgeous Audio quality – this is a must buy for fans…and so good to see Johnson be given some well-deserved limelight at last...

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