by Mark Hanson
(Acoustic Guitar Magazine- June 1997)
IMAGINE YOURSELF AS A fingerstyle guitar soloist, playing six nights a week in front of 2,0000-8,000 people. Sound like nirvana? Rock'n'rollers may command audiences that size on a regular basis, but seldom do the Earl Klughs and Leo Kottkes of the solo guitar world experience such throngs.
Wayne Johnson is an exception. Until recently, the jazz virtuoso's most visible activity was playing guitar for the pop/jazz vocal group the Manhattan Transfer, of "Boy from New York City" fame. With the Transfer, he has concertized around the world and recorded in some of the most prestigious studios in the U.S. As a soloist and the leader of the Wayne Johnson Trio, Johnson has recorded for Mojazz (Motown), MCA, and GTSP (Polygram). GTSP released his most recent solo acoustic effort, the scintilating Kindred Spirits, in 1996. But for the last two years, Johnson has had his most visible gig by far: touring as the opening solo acoustic guitarist for keyboardist/TV personality John Tesh.
Tesh fills the house at each concert, but Johnson is the one who blows the audience away. His repertoire spans a considerable range, from a stunning Beatles medley to a fiery jazz improv to his own showstopping compositions. He plays finger-style mostly, but on occasion a flatpick appears in his right hand as he rips through a jazz improvisation over a delay-looped chord progression he lays down live. He also plays screaming electric guitar in Tesh's band during the main show and is a featured soloist throughout the program.
Johnson, a 45-year-old Spokane native, has been performing since early childhood. He reached his musical turning point leading his high school jazz band to the Pacific Northwest champianship, where he was honored as best soloist. Vibra-
phonist Gary Burton was one of the judges, and he became Johnson's musical mentor. In th early '70's, Burton was instrumental in directing Johnson to Boston's Berklee College of Music, where he studied for two years with guitarist Mick Goodrick (a Burton band member). After Berklee, Johnson formed a variety of groups, most notably a trio in Minneapolis with drummer Bill Berg (who has recorded with Kottke) and bassist Jimmy Johnson. Connections from these bands led to an "audition" with the Manhattan Transfer: a ten-day trial gig in Pennsylvania in 1977.
Needless to say, Johnson passed with flying colors, and he spent 12 years touring the world and recording with the group. He then spent two years working with singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones.
Johnson's parallel "persuit of passion," as he calls it, is the Wayne Johnson Trio, with whom he has recorded six albums since 1980. He's also pursuing a promising solo career. Kindred Spirits was recorded in two days direct to two track digital in the auditorium of an art museum in upstate New York.It features Johnson's solo work on his Grit Laskin nylon-string cutaway and includes outstanding arrangements of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," Henry Mancini's "Dear Heart," and ten self-penned compositions.
Long an electric guitarist, Johnson only began exploring the sonic possibilities of the acoustic guitar in 1989. He has since grown very fond of the instrument. "If I had started on acoustic, I might never have gone to electric," Johnson said. "The acoustic guitar is so organic."
INSIDE WAYNE'S WORLD
by James Jensen
(Fingerstyle Guitar July/August '97)
Despite the fact that Wayne Johnson has probably performed for more people than any other fingerstyle player in the last year or two, hisname is not yet a household word among the fingerstyle community. The reason: Johnson has been playing for thousands of people a night as the opening act for and lead guitarist in the New Age television personality John Tesh's band and tour. It is easy to spot Johnson's CD on the New Age rack and dismiss him as a co-conspirator in the crime against music--a crime for which Mr. Tesh is so often accused. To do so, however, would be the listener's loss. Wayne is a talented composer, an intelligent and innovative arranger, and an outstanding player. I met Johnson after the final dress rehearsal for the current John Tesh tour. We talked about his guitar playing, as well as his famous employer.
How did the John Tesh gig come about?
Charlie Bisharat (who is Tesh's violinist and co-arranger) was a big fan of my trio. He would frequently visit an original music club called "The Comeback Inn" that I played at on Wednesday nights back in the mid-80's. He called me about three years ago and asked if I would be interested in playing in Tesh's band. I had been vacillating back and forth on doing solo work, and I wasn't actually interested in the gig until I spoke with John. I found him to be a great guy who cares about his musicians. After he heard me play he offered me a solo release on his new record label.
Where were your thoughts on him before joining the band, and now?
It keeps getting better for me. Tesh, as the leader of the group, has a different perspective on things. He looks at all the musicians and sees what they do, because he looks at himself as more of a marketer or leader. It is amazing how objective he is about his music; he doesn't look at himself as the keyboard player. He takes what everybody does, and instead of getting uptight by a band member's flashy performance, he integrates his or her virtuosity into the show. He really makes use of us; if I come up with an idea, he will put me right up front before three thousand people every night to do it! I have nothing but respect for him. He has a hand on every element of the show, from the lighting to the music.
You got to open for the shows on last year's tour?
It was a great opportunity for me. My solo release came out as we started the tour, and I got to open all the shows with a solo set. To play solo guitar every night to that many people really blew me away. I was very excited to get that shot; it made me want to do more solo shows. It was the first time in all my touring that I got a chance to play my own music. I spent years on the road with Manhattan Transfer and Rickie Lee
Jones, but I was always playing other people's music.
While this is primarily a solo album, you do have some light percussion here and there. Was it easy for you to work with a percussionist?
I actually wanted the release to be totally solo; it was John's idea to use percussion. His reasoning was based on marketing; he felt that if I had a little extra on a couple of tracks we could get some additional radio air play. I would have preferred to record it with Luis (Conte), but the problem was that the project was finished as a solo, and his part was recorded later. I can listen to it and at a couple of points tell that we didn't play it "together".
On "Montana" the percussive riffs you play remind me of a horse in full gallop.
My percussive style was developed through a guitar teacher I had when I was back at Berklee College of Music in Boston named Mick Goodrick. I actually developed this on electric guitar, and the finger clicks or taps from my right hand would happen over the pickups. I would get a pattern going, making full use of the motion of picking to get four sounds with the one motion.
Have you spent a lot of time practicing scales and patterns to build up speed and technique?
Yeah. For the right hand I would do a lot of independent this utilizing fifths for coordination. In fact, I wrote a tune as an exercise years ago called The Fun Zone, which is on the CD.
What are the sources for your compositions? Do they come from melodies you hear in your head or through noodling around on the guitar?
It is a combination. I can usually tell when I an listening to other players if a song came from a lick; it is kind of obvious due to the tricky and repetitive nature of the move. With guitar players in particular it is noticeable because complex little riffs aren't typically heard in one's head.
You hear a simple melody......
That's right. I do a lot of writing outdoors, and try to find a spiritually moving place. I try to avoid things I normally play. For instance, if I play the chord I always play when I pick up the guitar, it sets a mood which makes it almost impossible for me to write a song-other than the five or six that could be worked out of this feeling.
Do you ever mess around with altered tunings?
The problem with those is that they work better with steel-string than nylon-string guitars. I have a steel-string that I really like to play and I do mess around with the tunings on it a little bit, but I decided that it will be kept in the "hobby" category, because to get serious about alternate tunings is to get into a whole other ball game, and that could consume a lot of time. I do take my lower E down to D on the nylon, and I am jealous of the options that steel string players have.
When you choose your voicings, do you pick chords that have open strings for extra resonance?
Yes. I try to incorpotate-even in strange keys-open string. There is nothing more trite to me than playing obvious triads or bar chords. I think I started incorporating more open strings to get the guitar to sound bigger.
Listening to your CD, it doesn't seem that you listen to a lot of guitar; your influences must come from elsewhere.
That's very accurate. Sometimes I feel bad that I don't get to listen to many other guitar players. When I was working on improvisational technique I didn't want to be influenced by other players. I really haven't listened to other acoustic players until just a couple of years ago. I have been inspired by saxophone players and as a kid by Gary Burton, who plays vibes. When I give guitar clinics, I try to encourage people not to think about positions on the guitar, but to look at the fingerboard as a keyboard.
You really like touring and traveling.
I love touring. There is something about having control over your life in completely different environments every day that is so intoxicating to me. I can't wait to get up every morning and see what's new. Staying home and being in the studio can pay very well, but there is nothing like a live audience. I like to play in front of people every night; I want to continue doing this forever.