by Joseph Sherman
The first time I heard Roy Johnstone play Gershwin's "Summertime," he cannily segued from that ripe standard into a Celtic set. It worked. The Winnipeg-born instrumentalist's eclectic taste in music fuels his knack for fusions.
It was just a matter of time before his exploration of smart 20th-century pop and jazzy stuff produced a repertoire that now includes other bone-happy examples of the music pillaring an era. The violin/fiddle has always had a respected spot in the group portrait of swing and blues-pop, even genuine jazz (e.g. the late Stephane Grappelli). Exhibit A: Johnstone's latest recording, Summertime.
Roy Johnstone's CD-launch concert reflected the refinement of his explorations. One second-half number was an unadulterated Celtic set, but why not? He had virtuoso percussionist Allan Dowling to play with.
Dowling was the senior sideman on stage, companioned by two talented Islanders, upright bassist Ross MacDonald and guitarist Ian Toms. Their youth and infectious zest for the music gave the concert a warmth and exuberance matched only by Johnstone's patented vertical peregrinations when performing, his sinuous reed of a body a conduit for the music's lilt and feel.
The play list read like a cartogram of (mostly) American popular music. The first half included "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Blue Skies" and "Ain't Misbehavin'," all enthusiastically received by a full house. "Take Five" disappointed only because I love Dave Brubeck's extended version, which gives musicians a chance to fiddle with the motif, and these guys chose to keep it tight. The international component consisted of Moe Koffman's irrepressible "Swingin' Shepherd Blues" and "The Girl From Ipanema," the sweetest samba ever written.
Everything was looser in the second half: "Sunny Side of the Street," "In a Sentimental Mood," "Ragtime Life" (all on the CD), "St. Louis Blues," "Lullaby of Birdland" and a nearly deconstructed "Someday My Prince Will Come," duoed ably by Toms and MacDonald. And there was that necessary Celtic medley.
Arrangements are the key to appreciating such familiar music, whether in adhering to the tried and trusted, or thoughtfully spinning off something new. Johnstone's approach is respectful and fair.
This music, while eternally accessible, was written for a different time, an analog time, when audiences listened more attentively and innocently, and shouldn't be mocked or undersold. It was great to hear these musicians as a combo-two of them born long after composition, the other two grown up awash in rich echoes.
I've a repertoire request for Fiddlin' Slim: a groovy take on "Night and Day" (full version). Oh, and a lush cover of "Yesterday."