Jazz guitarist Norman Johnson clearly possesses great talent, as he is the Dean of the Hartford Conservatory of Music and Dance and is currently working with Dave Brubeck’s sons Chris and Dan on a project. His debut solo album, If Time Stood Still, showcases his playing abilities (alternating among five guitars), but does not allow him enough room to cut loose and swing.
Citing Wes Montgomery, George Benson, and Earl Klugh as major influences, Johnson has played with famous jazz musicians such as Brubeck, Bill Mays, and Steve Gadd. If Time Stood Still puts Johnson front and center, where he shows his compositional skills and musical range, although he never strays far from the smooth jazz genre.
“Acoustic Groove” features an exotic rhythm overlaid with Johnson’s gentle melodies. The Mediterranean-tinged tune grabs the ear mainly with its intriguing beat. Toward the end of “Time to Fly” he demonstrates how Benson has influenced him with his R&B-inflected guitar riffs. He also shows his debt to Pat Metheny by covering “Always and Forever,” giving it a smooth jazz spin. While Johnson showcases his adept skills, the song meanders and never quite reaches a climactic moment. Other cuts such as “As It Is” and “Unforgiven” make the listener long for Johnson to really groove, but he sticks with the contemporary, smooth sound.
“Starting Tomorrow” stands out from the other tracks for its samba rhythms and joyous improvisation. Here Johnson finally breaks loose with rapid but artistic solos, with the horn section providing some authentic swing. Chris Herbert’s beautiful flute lines accentuate the melody yet sound light and breezy. Pianist Martin Obeng also holds the spotlight with his pounding, rhythmic playing. One wishes that Johnson would have recorded more tunes in this vein, as it contains some impressive, jazzy playing. In addition, the title track provides an effective showcase for Johnson’s delicate guitar work, with his lilting, melodic strumming standing out from the subtle percussion.
Another departure from the album’s overall mellow tone is “All in Time,” which features not only Johnson but a horn section (with an appealing trombone solo from Davis) and complicated drumming from Arti Dixon and Latin percussion by Obeng. Finally, the down-tempo “Midnight Sun” illustrates that simplicity in production often works best. Accompanied by bassist Tyler VanOstrand and percussionist Obeng, the bare-bones number nicely surrounds Johnson’s playing, rhythmically punctuating Johnson’s riffs.
If Time Stood Still provides a showcase for Johnson, and he rises to the occasion with his accomplished guitar work. Hopefully future releases will feature him swinging like Montgomery or Benson, as this album too briefly hints at his ability to do so.