Matt Johnson: At PizzaExpress Live In London

Leading his own band at the Soho club, keyboard-man Johnson draws on buoyant soul and funk influences redolent of his work with Jamiroquai

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Jamiroquai’s Wiki entry notes its funk/acid jazz concern for addressing social and environmental issues. Matt Johnson, the band’s keys man for two decades, is now its MD, and on this album with his own band distills and perpetuates its blend of breezy optimism while adding his own take on how it might develop.

Johnson has written around 30 songs for Jamiroquai. The group recorded here is not a simulacrum but it mirrors all the original borrowings from rock and disco and, not unnnaturally, gives the leader more prominence in creating formats.

At its core are Johnson’s soft-spoken harmonies and the inspired restlessness that drummer Derrick McKenzie and bassist Ernie McKone aid and abet at every turn; but not at the expense of vocals (from the velvety and accomplished Valerie Etienne and Hazel Fernandes) or the astute positioning of guitarist Andrew Smith’s solos. One says “positioning”, because these charts – Johnson wrote four and co-wrote a fifth – while ever seeking the highway for a straight run are not formulaic.

The lyrics on Lonnie Liston Smith’s Expansions call for universal peace; Goddess’s assert personal romance in a free-falling world (super Smith solo here) with “too many broken people”; and the simple imperatives “Get on up/ Get on down” that drive Roy Ayers’s Our Time Is Coming may be prescient in still reflecting those serious issues; but the means to effective engagement is in going forward come what may. There are byways, such as the celestial one on Laluna and the one marked by skimpy vocalese and late chirruping keyboard effects on Venus Rising.

Johnson’s achievements don’t have to be spelled out, so this lively and sometimes reflective set was recorded in party time. As the words of With The Music have it (written by Johnson with Jamiroquai colleague McKenzie and Tanya Johnson), “It’s Friday night and I feel alright”. In a world currently framed to bring one down, a little joy really does go a long way.


Discography
Our Time Is Coming; Expansions; Laluna; Goddess; Venus Rising; Interstellar Love; With The Music (47.45)
Matt Johnson (kyb, v); Valerie Etienne, Hazel Fernandes (v); Derrick McKenzie (d); Ernie McKone (b); Andrew Smith (g). London, 21 November 2022.
PX Records PXRCD 1005