The late James P. Johnson, the "dean" of Harlem stride pianists, began his career in 1904. His venues included "rent parties," clubs, the concert hall and the stage. His influence and that of his disciple, Thomas "Fats" Waller, was profound and pervasive. Johnson died in 1955, Waller in 1943.
Sunday night in the Baird Auditorium, The Smithsonian Jazz Repertory Ensemble presented the music of these two artists in distilled form rather than as re-creation. The essence of the performance was interpretation, not slavish copying.
Johnson's "Carolina Shout" and "Snowy Morning Blues" were blended in one piece that treated only the scenes of the two compositions, and a trio performance of Waller's "Handful of Keys," featuring the fluent soprano saxophone of ensemble leader Bob Wilber with Dick Hyman, piano, and Panama Francis at the drums was improvised. Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose" became an occasion for the ensemble to cut loose with some collective jamming and included a burning solo by former Benny Goodman trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell and a generous and lively exchange of pianistic conversation between Dick Wellstood and Hyman. On this number, as throughout, Jack Gale on trombone and Major Holley, bass, played strong supportive roles.
The performance was recorded (with several "second takes") for future release on the Smithsonian Collection label. One looks forward to that release and to future programs by the ensemble.