Rogue Johnsen Project – 20/20
13 songs – 52 minutes
Based out of the southwestern suburbs of Washington, D.C., Rogue Johnsen has spent years on the road as a sideman, but serves up an all-original set of blues, jazz, rock and Southern soul on this disc, delivering an atmospheric, organ-fueled instrumentals reminiscent of Jimmy Smith, the B3 master who revolutionized music in the ‘50s with his epic run at Blue Note Records.
Johnsen’s background includes lengthy service time with three giants of Texas music: guitarist W.C. Clark, vocalist Miss Lavelle White and Archie Bell & the Drells, whose song, “Tighten Up,” topped the Billboard charts in 1968, as well as Bo Diddley, Larry Davis, Johnny Adams, Norton Buffalo and others.
A resident of West Springfield, Va., he’s the only student ever taken on by the great Charles Brown, the man who penned the standards “Drifting Blues” and “Merry Christmas Baby.” And he’s also studied with jazz master Chuck Israels (Bill Evans Trio) and guitarist Ron Thompson (John Lee Hooker), too.
Johnsen’s self-named trio was honored as the D.C. Blues Society’s band of the year in 2016. This appears to be his third self-produced release — following Way Back and Trouble Blues. He’s joined here by guitarist Mike Dutton, bassist Dean Dalton (Tom Principato), drummer Joe Wells and percussionist Jeff Covert, all of whom are veterans of the area music scene.
As the album title suggests, they recorded this one during the COVID-19 shutdown – intent on producing new music that carried forward the small-combo blues and jazz sounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was recorded at Wally Cleaver’s Studio in Fredericksburg, Va., between February and November 2020, and from the opening notes, it’s a rousing success.
Dutton’s guitar sets the tone as he opens the loping “Wally Cleaver’s Shuffle” before Rogue quiet accompaniment before the duo exchange electrifying solos throughout. The unhurried “Project 9B” might remind listeners of the soundtrack of ‘60s spaghetti Westerns before the minor-keyed “Tired of Winning” opens with a brief bass lead and Johnsen follows with riffs that would leave Smith smiling.
The ballad “Just Before Sleep” – which is built atop a simple hook – soothes then flows into the unhurried funk, “Stax Tracking,” a tip of the fedora to the label that dominated the ‘60s, before the action quiets to a whisper for the sweet, jazzy “They Don’t Know.” The swinging shuffle, “Big Bright City,” heats things up from the jump and builds tension as it flows while never losing control before yielding to the sprightly rocker, “A Long Ways Away,” which comes with an early-‘60s feel.
“Downtime,” a molasses-slow blues, shows Rogue’s prowess as Brown returns to life through his fingers before the rapid-fire, stop-time barrelhouse number, “Goin’ Rogue,” throws another log on the fire. Three more pleasers — “Just A Minor Blues,” “New Blue Soul” and “Monkey Tumble Too” – bring the 53-minute set to a close.
Available through Amazon or direct from the band (address above), set your sights on 20/20. Unlike the year itself, this album will strike a pleasant chord for anyone who loves old-school instrumentals and deep grooves.