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Guitarist Plays on Reflex : Wayne Johnson, who will lead his trio at Le Cafe in Sherman Oaks, calls the instrument a vehicle for his ideas.

August 13, 1993|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times

Wayne Johnson said that for many years, his guitar was something he simply picked up and played.

Then, about a decade ago--as a result, he says, of lessons he took from guitarist Mick Goodrick in the early '70s while attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston--things suddenly changed.

"I developed this oneness with the instrument. It became a part of me, and now it's a vehicle where I can play melodies or ideas without thinking," said Johnson, 41. The guitarist, who began playing at the age of 8 and who worked with the Manhattan Transfer vocal quartet for 13 years, leads his trio Monday at Le Cafe in Sherman Oaks.

Johnson talked about his preference for playing when the brain plays a diminished role. "The way you slam on the brakes when a dog runs in front of your car, I like to play music that way, like a reflex," he said during a phone interview from his Temecula home. "Your process then goes from the hand right to the instrument. Usually, you go through the brain, which tells the hand what to do. The brain kind of acts like a computer, pulling out files, which are ideas. But if you play without thinking, you don't have to pull those files out, the ideas just flow."

Heard on his new "Keeping the Dream Alive" release on Motown Records, Johnson plays an impressive range of selections, from the Celtic rockish flavor of "Bedrock" to the subtle, electronically charged, jazz-based tones of "Nu Blooz." The guitarist said he embraces a wealth of diverse musical styles because "it's kind of like opening all the doors so that nothing encumbers me. I'm not locked in."

Though there's decidedly a jazz core to what Johnson delivers, he doesn't like to dub his offerings jazz, he said, because he believes the meaning of the word changes every year.

"A 20-year-old kid can be walking down the street, listening to hip-hop on a boom box, and say to you, 'Yeah, I like jazz,' " Johnson said, referring to the jazz elements that are being incorporated into hip-hop and rap these days. "So I call what I do contemporary improvisational music, because I don't know what it is."

"Wayne's music is different, and goes in a lot of different directions, but that's what makes it fun," said Dale Jaffe, owner of Le Cafe. "And he consistently gets a great response from the audience."

"The music is accessible," Johnson said. "You can't just flake out and improvise. You really lose people that way, and you lose yourself, too."

Johnson formed his trio in Minneapolis, where he lived in 1977, with bassist Jimmy Johnson and drummer Bill Berg, who are the leaders of another band known as Flim and the BBs. In the past two years, Jimmy Johnson's spot was taken first by Gary Willis; now John Leftwich, who has worked with Rickie Lee Jones and Freddie Hubbard, has it, playing mostly acoustic bass in the trio.

"He's marvelous on the acoustic," Wayne Johnson said. "And he's a lot like me--he doesn't get locked into certain genres."

Berg is a full-time animation artist at Disney Studios and drew some of the major characters in such recent films as "Aladdin" "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid."

Johnson reveres playing with Berg, calling him "an orchestrator of the skins, because he plays so differently."

The guitarist said he's found almost everything he needs from life by playing with his trio. "I get full emotional satisfaction from playing a gig," he said. "It's like, 'Well, I could die tomorrow and be OK.' I also like to think of us as one person. Like John is my left arm and leg, Bill is my right arm and leg, and I'm in the center. . .And we're always intact. And when we fall, we fall together."

Where and When Location: Wayne Johnson's trio at the Room Upstairs at Le Cafe, 14633 Ventura Blvd.,No vote Sherman Oaks. Hours: 8:30 and 10 p.m. Monday. Price: $4 cover, two-drink minimum. Call: (818) 986-2662.

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