Richard Leo Johnson | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Richard Leo Johnson 

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Twelve-string guitar master Richard Leo Johnson sounds like the unlikely offspring of Leo Kottke and Django Reinhardt, but he was virtually unknown until last year, when he released an album of unaccompanied guitar called Fingertip Ship (Metro Blue). And even after the disc came out, Johnson could've been a candidate for one of those old "do you know who I am?" American Express commercials: his music fits into neither the guitar's conventional niches nor the hybrid categories--jazz bluegrass, for instance--of recent years. Almost entirely self-taught, he uses an unusual double-neck guitar, a raft of alternate tunings (reportedly more than two dozen), and a battery of percussive effects. Johnson's newly released follow-up, Language (Blue Note), demonstrates even better his idiosyncratic, eclectic outlook: he collaborates with a variety of musicians, from Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista to oboist Paul McCandless to downtown New York drum demon Matt Wilson. Obvious influences like John Fahey and Michael Hedges come through in the coruscating brilliance of his technique, but he has also dedicated original compositions to Miles Davis, bassist Jaco Pastorius, and Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes (who's also on the album). Many finger-style guitarists who've reached Johnson's level have settled for riff mongering: the ornamentation of their solos is admittedly impressive, but too often it's just tinsel scattered over the bare branches of a song. Language, however, suggests that Johnson wants to do more: a few of the tracks push toward an idiom in which the prestidigitation adds up to more than the sum of its parts, growing and evolving thematically. Jazz's reigning acoustic guitarist, Ralph Towner, epitomizes this style, and in fact Johnson shares Towner's gift for painting sonic landscapes with pointillistic splashes. So far Johnson has only edged up to the line between folk-guitar virtuosity and jazz improvisation, but I suspect he'll straddle it soon enough. Tuesday, 8 PM, Martyrs', 3855 N. Lincoln; 773-404-9494.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Clay Patrick McBride.


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