Smooth as Silk

Jelly Roll Johnson: Songs From the Record World

Review from SPAH Harmonica Happenings
Author: Ken “Mojo Red” Mergentime

Jelly Roll Johnson dips into his wide-ranging songbook and delivers a top-notch CD.

I first met Kirk “Jelly Roll” Johnson at a SPAH convention a number of years ago. It was at one of the late night blues jams, and I had no idea who he was, a quiet gentleman with an unassuming manner. Then he tossed off a jaw-dropping solo that was both elegant and soulful, and I nudged the fellow next to me and asked “Who the heck is that guy?” I was informed that he was Mr. Jelly Roll Johnson, a Nashville session player of great renown. Nashville? Isn’t that were they make all that country music? Well, you coulda fooled me. I introduced myself to him later, and in response to my stupid question, he said simply, “yeah, I record with a lot of country artists, but I like all kinds of music.” Always generous with his time and a kind word, I have, over the years, come to admire Jelly on many levels.So when I heard that Jelly had released his own instrumental CD, Songs from the Record World, I knew I was going to be in for a treat. He did not disappoint. In fact, I stand in awe of his smooth un-amplified delivery and rich tone on both diatonic and chromatic harp. The tracks are all older songs that were originally released on vinyl (the CD itself resembles a 45), and reveals a soft spot for the great Ray Charles. The fine recording fidelity, Jelly’s great playing and intelligent arrangements-with lush, unhurried backup from Pat Bergeson’s very versatile guitar, Dave Pomeroy on bass and Chris Brown on drums-combine to make this a first-rate recording from the first song to the last. This one’s getting a lot of airtime in my house.

There are only two blues tunes, but both are terrific. On the classic Bill Broonzy tune “Key to the Highway,” Jelly delivers a clean, bluesy sound never seeming to show off. But the other blues song, Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love” is one I have long loved ever since I first heard Paul Butterfield cover it way back when. Interestingly, Jelly tackles this tune in 3rd position rather than 2nd, the way Butterfield did it. I found myself reaching for my own harp to try and play along. Well, Jelly’s superb control of bends and overblows make it sound easy…but it’s not. Kids, don’t try this at home.

Next comes Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” which he elegantly covers on chromatic with full, rounded tone. His jazzy diatonic rendition of Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So” swings soulfully, just right. With the classic Mose Allison tune, “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy”, Jelly gives a jazzy, smooth, laconic performance that is both sad and just plain cool. On “ Walkin’ After Midnight” Jelly gives a nice, bouncy performance, perfectly serving the mood of the song.Then, on “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Cryin’” Jelly perfectly captures the mood, never straying too far from the lovely melody. Bergeson’s guitar work is stellar here. With “Just for A Thrill” he again turns to Ray Charles (who often performed this Lil Armstrong song), Jelly again picks up his chromatic and tugs effortlessly at our heartstrings. Then, staying with Charles, we get the classic “Busted,” delivered with passion and panache (another not-so-easy song to cover on diatonic). On the last track Jelly gives us a smoky jazz-club rendition of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” a deceptively simple and very melodic tune that Jelly plays flawlessly in 2nd position on diatonic harp. Jelly Roll Johnson is a very soulful and melodic player who manages to combine great tone and perfect control with a deep, heartfelt passion that is finely communicated in the service of every song. Highly recommended.