|As the closest major town to Taos which I call home, Santa Fe has quite the stable of local music talent. It's always proudly featured in dedicated sections of the more enterprising of music retailers. Of course, homegrown doesn't automatically equate to quality. Inherently suspicious of flag waving, I don't touch any of it unless a listening station supported sampling. That's how I discovered Ladino singer Consuelo Luz and Flamenco maestro Chuscales. Resident clarinet wizard Eddie Daniels I of course loved long before I ever moved to the SouthWest. Today's guitar album played a cut in the background while I perused the magazine racks at Hastings. It's not a store I frequent for CDs since their selection focus doesn't accommodate my acquired taste. Borders and The Ark tend to more be my kind of haunts. Alas, this rumba-flamenco flavored track with Chinese pipa, charango and panflute caught my attention. A copy of HiFi News got stuffed back into the rack while I made tracks to the customer service counter to find out what was spinning.
Turns out Mr. Johnson started guitar life as a Jazz-style flatpicker and led The Yellow Jackets and Sons & Lovers in the early 60s before touring with Les Paul as drummer in 1979 and '80. He studied flamenco technique with Ruben and Miguel Romero and also picked up -- pun intentional -- Nashville country-style thumb picking. He's an instrumental gearhad who collects guitars and amplifiers and is also the creator of the Tap Guitar (a flamenco guitar with 19 midi triggers to add Latin percussion while playing) and the Fla-quinto, a double-necked flamenco/requinto hybrid.
For his first solo album under his own label, all this adds up to sophisticated "Nuevo Flamenco Lite" that makes up in wealth of timbres, production values and compositional detail what it lacks in depth when compared to present-day Spanish masters of the genre. Think of it as a major step-up from Ottmar Liebert -- Armik-sans-overdubs moves to the four corners -- and you've nailed both the genre and level of presentation. There are shrum-shrum romps that cross Mexican and Sinti Jazz idioms; a smooth Jazz number sporting both Koontz archtop electric steel string and Hernandez Huipe cutaway models over pipa tremolos before the latter segues into a strangely bluesy solo; an Ennio Morricone-style Spaghetti Western tune with a brief Kung Fu priest appearance; Bossa-inspired hip-swaying rhythms; 11-string nylon fretless Godin Glissentar octave doubling for ambiance; or a seamless transition from Spanish guitar fingerstyle suggesting a bubbling brook to Travis thumb-picking white-rapid waters before the "River Suite" returns again its calmer opening mood. On "Pharao's Journey", a shifty rumba-flamenco rhythm is overlaid by Bop Jazz guitar and twangy pipa riffs - George Benson meets The Three Mustaphas.
There's also a redo of "Pipeline" with the lead on Heritage Bluesette and Fender Telecaster while the closing "Melancolia" becomes a wistful meditation on September 11th, with Roland synth guitar strings as backdrop. "Rumba Oriental" is actually a tune lifted from the Beijing Opera for which Wayne Wesley contracted Gao Hong on Chinese pipa, a combo that worked out so well that it carried over into other numbers already mentioned. In short, Songs from the Soul is guitar-based happy music that spins off the non-vocal Gipsy Kings craze but goes the extra mile to separate it from the numerous would-be clones clogging the airwaves. It's the kind of music I listen to while savoring a good sunset meal on the patio. And a fella's gotta eat every day, ya know? Nothing wrong then with low-calorie aural fare to go with it.