Weaned on hard bop and the mainstream sounds of the 1960s, Chicago guitarist Henry Johnson has the big tone and strong swing that marked the best jazz of that era. He’s got technique to burn, and best of all he doesn’t light it up just to prove he can; when he improvises, he most often keeps that extra power comfortably in reserve and focuses on lissome melodies. But most folks who’ve heard Johnson would never expect to find these virtues in his playing, thanks mainly to a handful of pop-fusion CDs he released in the early 90s. Not only did those discs fail to make Johnson a familiar name in smooth-jazz circles, but they also convinced plenty of listeners that he had nothing more to offer than the bland palaver they contained. His in-the-trenches work behind saxist Stanley Turrentine during that time should’ve proved otherwise; unfortunately that lineup never recorded, so relatively few people had a chance to hear it. But Johnson’s most recent album, An Evening at Sea–a quartet date recorded live aboard the QE2 in 1999 and released by Chiaroscuro–lets his strengths shine through, and his latest project, the hard-pumping, soul-splattered Organ Express, should flatten most remaining doubts about his taste. (Most, not all: he seems to prefer treacly ballads for his vocal turns, though his warm, resilient tibre would better serve a Nat Cole blues or a Joe Williams shout.) Drummer Greg Rockingham brings to the group his crisp, cutting kit sound and about 20 years of experience in south-side Chicago soul jazz. Peter Roothaan, a relative newcomer to the local scene, has contributed his enthusiastic, driving sax to bands led by guitarist George Freeman and organist Charles Earland. And organist Chris Foreman, who’s led his own bands since the 80s (and most recently lent some legitimacy to the Mighty Blue Kings), is an exemplar of the approach that Jimmy Smith all but invented–burly, bruising, and splashy, and a perfect complement to Johnson’s sculpted leads. Friday, July 6, 9 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552. Saturday, July 14, 5 PM, Pops for Champagne, 2934 N. Sheffield; 773-472-1000. The Organ Express also plays every Wednesday at 9 PM at Andy’s, 11 E. Hubbard; 312-642-6805.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.