Portrait of the artists 

When crafting a short, quick biographical sketch to be used in promoting the work of a musician or performing artist, it always helps to be in possession of at least one memorable nugget of information -- something succinct that makes a convenient hook on which to hang an explanation for said artist’s entire catalog.

Whether or not the anecdote is ultimately proven apochryphal is unimportant. All that matters is that the majority of overworked – and often jaded – journalists and critics find in this wee tale a germ of an idea: a doorway, if you will, through which they can more easily approach a perplexing subject.

The music made by guitarist Richard Leo Johnson is one such subject.

A complex – and often stupefyingly intricate – instrumental amalgam of the American acoustic folk idiom, the late-’70s heyday of electric jazz fusion, the psychedelic backwash of Krautrock avatars CAN, and the type of hypnotic Eastern drones favored by such ‘60s avant-garde archetypes as La Monte Young and Albert Ayler, Johnson’s pocket guitar symphonies are often so cerebral and idiosyncratic as to defy categorization.

(Johnson demurs, “I always avoid categories. I see my music as progressive instrumental, nothing more or less.”)

Which is why one of those aforementioned press release nuggets is especially useful in sussing out the origins of such a stellar – and singular – talent.

However, unlike most contrived tales used to hype up lightweight artists, the one most commonly attached to Johnson has the ring of truth. And – if legit – goes a long way towards explaining just how he arrived at his beguiling and virtuosic style.

According to his official bio, Johnson – who came of age in a small town in Arkansas – first became intrigued with the outer limits of his instrument, when he happened to stumble upon a home-made cassette tape containing two stellar albums featuring extraordinary guitarwork: 1972’s Greenhouse by Leo Kottke, and 1971’s The Inner Mounting Flame by John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Innocently assuming that both sides (and thus both albums) of the unmarked tape had been made by the same artist, Johnson was floored by what he termed the possibility that one could “make something happen that fused the linear liquidity of McLaughlin and the dense harmonic structure and drive of Kottke.”

He immediately began to practice in earnest (“I closed myself in my room and made my own rules,” he says), and in doing so, developed an original approach combining plucking, strumming, and even the percussive striking of his instrument.

Richard Leo also moved up from standard 6-string guitars to 12-string, and ultimately, custom-made dual-necked, 18-string models.

As if that weren’t enough to satisfy his curiosity and desire for experimentation, he went on to develop as many as 30 different alternate tuning structures, which allowed him to coax harmonics and chords from his instruments that were simply unattainable to other players, no matter how disciplined or inventive.

One can only wonder how long it took before this string music prodigy realized that his fateful cassette tape actually compiled the work of a British jazz wizard who’d apprenticed under Miles Davis, and a half-deaf Athens, Georgia, boy who was raised on rural country blues...

Regardless, by the time that information drifted his way, Johnson was deep into a a mindset of exploration and discovery that would continue to fuel his creative drive for decades to come.

An architectural photographer by trade, Johnson’s musical exploits eventually began to turn heads, and he signed with famed jazz label Blue Note in the late ‘90s, issuing two solo albums on their time-honored imprint (1999’s Fingertip Ship and 2000’s Language). Upon their release, critics worldwide were unanimous in their overwhelming praise for his vision and technique.

In fact, it’s worth noting that when esteemed music journalist Vic Garbarini opined in Playboy Magazine that Richard Leo was “the most innovative guitarist since Jimi Hendrix,” such an outpouring of rapturous praise was essentially par for the course.

Not long after, Johnson and his family relocated to Savannah, and the artist became something of a familiar face in the more esoteric corners of our local music scene.

In between low-key jaunts to wow crowds at international jazz festivals and showcases, he would quietly book himself into inconspicuous venues like the dusty old Jim Collins Bar, or City Lights Theatre, and hold small audiences in thrall with what essentially amounted to semi-private recitals – but which often served a dual purpose: they were opportunities for Johnson to try out new material, and indulge his growing interest in electronically-processed sounds and digital loops (types of expression which were of little interest for a notoriously purist jazz label like Blue Note).

It was this desire to expand his musical palette which led to his current project – and the first “band” he has ever led – The Richard Leo Johnson Trio.

The Savannah-based group, featuring Ricardo Ochoa on both electric and acoustic violin and Theremin, and Andrew Ripley on synthesizer, melodica, and Frostwave Resonator (both late of The Savannah Symphony Orchestra), have just released their debut CD on Maryland’s respected “outsider” label Cuneiform, and are riding a growing wave of ebullient critical praise.

They’ll celebrate the record’s release this Saturday night with two shows at local coffeehouse and performance venue The Sentient Bean – a fitting location, since that’s where the three staged their first-ever collaboration.

Ripley and Ochoa had first made names for themselves around town through their work in ARTillery Punch, a well-received collective of several classically-trained players whose monthly shows at The Bean drew on the works of modern-day composers, avant-garde legends, and their own members. Ripley and Ochoa’s diligent work ethics and their shared desire to document and preserve the legacy of traditional chamber music – while looking ahead to the future of experimental composition – seemed to mesh nicely with Johnson’s emerging post-modern guitar aesthetic.

Before long, the three were hard at work adapting Richard Leo’s new original material – initially conceived as solo works for electronically treated guitar – a task made difficult by the very nature of his songs, in which the musician usually handles all rhythm, melody, harmony and counterpoint in a dazzling display of ambidexterity.

“It was dense indeed,” admits Ochoa.

“There was almost no way to play new material on top of his music, so what Andy and I found ourselves doing in the beginning was doubling some of the inner parts and melodies. That helped us to better understand Richard’s process.”

Adds Ripley, “Initially it was challenging for all of us, but in a good way. Richard needed to be a bit more rigid in the way he played his songs – that’s part of playing well with others – but Ricardo and I suddenly had over an hour of new music to keep in our heads when we were used to relying on written parts.”

“Richard is self-taught, and folk-influenced,” says Ochoa, “and we’re formally trained in classical music. We had to be patient with each other, and remain open-minded. Luckily, our personalities matched up well. We all felt we had never heard anything like what we were doing before. So, we found it worth pursuing.”

Johnson admits that this learning curve was steep for him as well.

“The biggest change for me was learning to listen to them. I’d always focused on my delivery and that was that. Their openness and tenacity overcame any obstacles. I just tried to exercise patience… which is tough for me, but it’s been very rewarding.”

And it looks as if the final result may be very rewarding for all concerned.

Their album, Poetry Of Appliance, hit store shelves and internet outlets in mid-September, and is already proving itself to be a brisk seller for Cuneiform, a prestigious niche outfit that’s been around since the mid-’80s and is known for taking chances on “fringe” artists with little hope for mainstream acceptance, but great potential for developing loyal followings of adventurous music fans worldwide.

While primarily known for archival releases from Robert Wyatt’s British jazz-rock unit Soft Machine, and a string of offerings by avant-garde guitarists Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser, the tiny label run by prog-rock aficionado Steve Feigenbaum, enjoys a sterling reputation for scrupulous quality control and above-board financial practices – two things which unfortunately cannot be said of most small labels.

Says Kaiser, “They feel like an ally -- where most labels feel like an adversary.”

According to the band, the album was conceived as a rough demo to help them get bookings at jazz and fringe music venues in the states. But once they took stock of what they’d laid down, it became obvious they’d accidentally wound up with the makings of an impressive debut potentially worthy of wide release.

Luckily for them, Feigenbaum agreed.

“I liked Richard’s work quite a bit, and I followed his career through his signing with Blue Note,” says the label owner. “We had always talked about working together at some point, and I guess he never let my number leave his Rolodex.”

After an enthusiastic phone call from Johnson, Feigenbaum consented to listen to a rough version of the record, and upon doing so, telephoned to offer the group a contract that very same day.

“It wasn’t complete yet,” recalls Feigenbaum, “but I knew I wanted to release it.”

Within a matter of days, the trio had tracked additional songs with local producer and engineer Kevin Rose, and the album was completed.

The finished result is a haunting and mysterious blend of syncopated guitar, soothing orchestrations, and eerie blasts of electronic tonalities and synthesized wind instruments. Those familiar with Richard Leo’s work, will instantly recognize his trademark playing style – yet, Ochoa and Ripley’s input adds a certain emotional quality that was sometimes obscured by Johnson’s blink-and-you-missed-it skills.

In a wonderfully concise and accurate assessment, reviewer Stewart Mason of AllMusic.com says the album “is difficult to categorize, but marvelous to hear.”

Johnson says it’s one of the few things in his entire career that he’s “pretty satisfied with,” noting, “Many of the critics that have reviewed my other albums think this is the best thing I have put out.”

The guitarist has nothing but praise for his bandmates and for Rose.

“Ricardo and Andy are consummate professionals, and Kevin did an amazingly thorough job of mixing, producing and engineering this project. I’ve had several top critics comment on the quality of the recording and the production.”

Rose says he too is thrilled with the reception the disc has received so far.

“It’s been pretty overwhelming, actually. People seem to think the combination of the sound and the performances may help bridge the gap between the more technical aspects of Richard’s style with its more atmospheric and emotional elements,” he says. “It makes my job very easy when you’re dealing with musicians who have that sort of dexterity and direction. My role becomes more that of a clerk than anything else. It was a pleasure working with them, and at the same time, quite a challenge.”

Feigenbaum says that marketing challenging music of this sort is always a challenge in itself – but at least in the case of this album, it may be an easier sell than much of his company’s output.

“We’re considered so much of a fringe label, the fact that we’ve put out something as accessible as this seems a bit out of character. It’s not because it’s been dumbed down, but it truly does have the potential to appeal to a very wide audience. A lot of my friends who’ve heard it have said things like, ‘Wow. This is great! You know, my girlfriend might even like this.’”

The Richard Leo Johnson Trio plays The Sentient Bean (13 E. Park Ave. on Forsyth Park) – at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., Saturday, November 20th. The alcohol and smoke-free shows are open to ALL AGES. Tickets are $5 in advance or $7 at the door. Call 232-4447 or go to www.rlj3.com.

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Jim Reed

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