Just when you thought he’d reached the limits of funkiness, along comes “Stank”!
Even if you’re not familiar with Doug Johns, the title of his latest CD will get your attention. Stank is a fine collection of tunes, all of which were written or co-written by Johns. The band is great too, with several “A list” players, including guitarist Oz Noy, saxophonist Kenny Anderson and Doug’s longtime associate, Chris Ceja on drums.
The album’s opener, “Bird’s Back Yard,” sets a majestic tone, beginning with a fanfare from the horn section. This tune, like most of the selections, is strong and funky. While Doug has plenty to say, mostly by way of high register solos, often doubled an octave lower, he doesn’t go out of his way to remind the listener that this is a “bass record” and gives ample space to his bandmates. Also notable is Mark Leach’s Hammond organ, prominent throughout most of the CD, as an appropriate — and funky — alternative to a traditional keyboard.
Next is the very funky “Booty Time,” sort of a ‘David Sanborn meets George Clinton’ tune, with a Tower of Power-tinged groove (complete with bari sax punches and everything!). With Utah Witherspoon repeatedly singing the “Booty Time” refrain, we’re not sure exactly how seriously we’re supposed to take it. It’s just a good, fun funk tune.
“Funk Tree,” on the other hand, has a country flavor. There’s some great bass playing on this one (with lots of notes!). Oz Noy doubles on guitar and banjo and Brian Davidson fills out the rest of the string section with acoustic and electric guitars and mandolin. It’s country music with guts!
Johns switches to fretless and doubles on guitar for the quiet “Namaste,” a word used in India to signify a formal greeting. Ceja’s drums are supplemented with percussion from Rafael Guzman, Jr. Kenny Anderson, who co-wrote the tune with Doug, plays soprano sax, as well as shekere, for additonal flavoring.
Next is the edgy “Summer Song,” a funky, melodic tune with plenty of slapping and bari sax accents. Kenny Anderson handles the horn duties, along with trumpeter Joe Miller. Ceja and Guzman again supply the drums and percussion, respectively
“Satchmo” is a somewhat intense tune with angular horn lines, at times reminiscent of ’70s fusion music. Doug inserts a few Jaco-esque lines in his bass playing. Otmaro Ruiz makes an impressive cameo appearance on Rhodes and synth.
“The Red” is one of two tunes on the album with just Doug. Here he plays both bass and guitar, having also done the drum programming. He is melodic and expressive and the mix makes him sound like a whole band. Production and sound quality are pleasing, too, using just the “right” amount of reverb.
Next is “Up the Funk,” which sounds like it could have been taken right out of the Tower of Power playlist, complete with Anderson’s funky horn lines, Leach’s Hammond organ and Witherspoon’s soulful vocals. On this upbeat, feel-good tune, Doug is very much his own man, playing his own funky bass grooves, rather than trying to clone Rocco Prestia’s signature machine gun 16th-note lines (not that anyone said Doug was going for the T.O.P. sound in the first place!).
The title tune is a smooth, Parliament-type composition, more groove-oriented than melodic. Johns, who repeatedly articulates an intricate and infectious bass riff, also lays down the guitar tracks. Rounding out the quartet are Ceja on drums, Leach on Hammond and Anderson on tenor sax.
Johns closes Stank with the unaccompanied “With You in Mind,” where he showcases his abilities as a melodic writer and solid bass player.
Stank is well written and well produced. Though all the horn parts, impressive as they are, were arranged by Doug Johns and Kenny Anderson, the only thing that bugged me a little bit was the fact that, outside of Joe Miller’s trumpet, the “full horn section” was all Kenny Anderson. I don’t know, I guess there’s just something about one guy who plays all the soprano, alto, tenor and bari saxes and sometimes flute (even though I’ve known Kenny for many years and have always thought of him as a great player).
Stank offers a satisfying variety of grooves, all woven together thematically with horns, Hammond organ, ultra clean slapping passages and more. Doug Johns is a very talented writer, arranger and player. In my interview with Doug, he said, “Over time, I’ve learned that I need to take more chances and be confident in what I believe, musically or otherwise. Hopefully I have the record button on when I do that!” With Stank, it looks like he did.
Review by Jon Liebman
Also, see our exclusive one-on-one interviews with Doug!