Return of the Jungle Love: On Jesse Johnson
As a brown sugar toking D’Angelo fan who has been digging his sonic voodoo since seeing him jam live that memorably crazy night in 1995 when he played the Supper Club for his debut album release party, for me the release of Black Messiah on December 15 was an early Christmas present that stayed in constant rotation throughout my holiday season spent in Baltimore. “Don’t you want to listen to something else?” my Baltimore host (and former Village Voice jazz critic) Don Palmer asked.
Standing in the kitchen, I’d already played Black Messiah twice since arriving a few hours before. Looking at Don, I smiled and simply answered, “Nope.” I was thrilled that D’Angelo’s team was able to finally deliver Black Messiah to the world as the first Christmas miracle in centuries. It was an album as complexly layered, bugged-out and soulful as I’d hoped, but the Newport puffing southern man had also brought along guitarist/singer/producer Jesse Johnson for his magical mystery journey into sound.
Two months later, seeing Johnson performing alongside D’Angelo and his fellow Vanguard posse this past weekend on Saturday Night Live, especially on the second number “Charade,” where both he and D were able to get into some rock star guitar theatrics, was equally as special. All incognegro in his winter hat and shades, perhaps the getup was Johnson’s way of forging his own identity on stage or the set was really that brick. Regardless, his playing sounded splendid.
Back in 2011, I interviewed Jesse Johnson in Philadelphia on MLK Day in the living-room of our mutual friend and radio personality Dyana Williams. Over a light lunch and Perrier, the former pink suit wearing Johnson told me he was in the studio with D’Angelo. Although vague on exactly what kind of aural tests they were conducting in the lab, Johnson hinted modestly, “We’re just fooling around. I’m not really sure where D is going with it, but I love working with him.
“The only problem is I don’t smoke, but everything I take to the studio now smells like a cigarettes. We’ve played together on a bunch of stuff. He’ll play bass or drums or I’ll play bass. We just jam and record to get licks and things.” Thankfully for both the new jacks and the old heads fans, Johnson was willing to make the smoky sacrifice in the name of Black art, muddy soul, singing in tongues and a little brimstone thrown into the mix.
While neither D’Angelo nor Jesse has spoken publicly on the process of their years in the making collaboration, I assume D learned a few things from the man that the press still keeps referring to as guitarist for The Time as though he never released a few dope solo joints of his own beginning with his 1985 album Jesse Johnson Revue (the bridge between Ernie Isley and Vernon Reid) up to his underrated bluesy excursion Bare My Naked Soul in 1996 and the rock-soul militancy of Verbal Penetration in 2009.
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