George V. Johnson was a promising jazz singer in the 1970s and ’80s — recording with Pharoah Sanders, working with Dizzy Gillespie, touring for eight years with saxophonist James Moody — but the native Washingtonian put his art on hold for 30 years to work instead for New Jersey Transit. He recently retired from that job and is restarting his musical career in earnest. Perhaps that’s why he was the very picture of joy at Blues Alley on Tuesday night.
Johnson is a practitioner of vocalese, a somewhat overlooked art form in which singers put lyrics to previously instrumental tunes and even to transcribed improvisations. His own reworkings include Charlie Parker’s “My Little Suede Shoes,” something of a signature for Johnson, and Hank Mobley’s soul-drenched “East of the Village.” The bad news is the late saxophonists’ acrobatics were such that when Johnson (or anyone else) sings them, the words go by too fast and too bountifully to be caught in one hearing. More easily understood, though, is the sheer thrill that the singer expressed at any moment. He strutted in place, with a smile whose brightness was matched by his eyes, and emitted streams of words in a smooth-as-silk voice. On “East of the Village,” he ran through dense rhythms as casually as a kindergartener would a nursery rhyme.
But Johnson also trod some well-worn vocalese ground. Specifically, he showcased “Moody’s Mood for Love,” with lyrics by vocalese founder (and Johnson’s mentor) Eddie Jefferson. Incredibly, Johnson out-suaved his teacher: He was effortless, smoothing out the stutter of the opening “Here I go-here I go-here I go” almost subconsciously, then tossed the spotlight off to tenor saxophonist Elijah Balbed with a light “and a girl says. . . .” (Incidentally, it’s a tribute to both Johnson’s voice and poise to note that when he introduced Balbed and trumpeter Donvonte McCoy after their solos, he did so with the aplomb of a professional emcee.) But the relaxation he brought to the tune only increased the feeling of delight.
None of it, though, outdid the delight of one of Johnson’s originals. “Mother Africa” seemed somber at first, with an aching, cascading intro by pianist Deante Childers. But when bassist Kris Funn and drummer Keith Killgo entered, they brought with them a South African groove that was pure happiness. As Johnson intended it: the tune was all uplift, the leader singing a chorus of “Mother Africa, we love you” and adding lines about peace, love and brotherhood. It was enough to inspire tears of joy. This song, this man, need to be preserved for posterity.