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Johnson Heeded Urge to Go Wes : Jazz: The guitarist, who plays in Newport tonight, matches Montgomery's deliciously appealing style.

August 31, 1995|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LOS ANGELES — The first time guitarist Eric Johnson heard Wes Montgomery, that fabulous jazz guitarist who died unexpectedly at age 45 in 1968, he flipped.

"It was 1965, I was a teen-ager just starting to play, and his version of 'Tequila' just blew me away. Here was a guy who communicated so powerfully that even a non-jazz fan could get with it," says Johnson, an active member of the L.A. jazz scene who has played with organist Jack McDuff, trumpeter Jimmy Owens and saxophonists Lou Donaldson and Willis Jackson. He appears tonight with bassist Bobby Haynes at the Coffee Plantation in Newport Beach.

Today, Johnson still greatly admires Montgomery, famed for his gleaming yet soft sound and his way to make both jazz numbers and pop songs such as "Eleanor Rigby" and "Windy" breathe with vitality.

He is particularly enamored of his idol's ability to play octaves--striking two notes at once, an octave apart, producing a rich, ringing sound--said Johnson, a native of Pittsburgh who has lived in Southern California for a year.

Few guitarists since Montgomery can manage this difficult but deliciously appealing style. George Benson is one, Lee Ritenour is another, and so is Johnson. His "Bumpin' in L.A." CD on Clarion Records spotlights octave playing on most tracks.

"It's pretty much unexplored territory," Johnson, an animated man with a fleshy oval face and bright brown eyes, said during an interview in his Westside home. "It's not something many can do. And before the album, I couldn't either. So I practiced extensively, switched to heavier-gauge strings, and after some time, I could hear the difference."

Offering his version of Montgomery's signature style isn't all Johnson is about. He's a very lyrical player who can give such standards as "Am I Blue" a warm quality, or can add plenty of blues whammy to the melodic bent that underpins his numbers.

"Oh, man, melody is everything," said Johnson, who also plays Friday at Mum's in Long Beach with Haynes, and on Sunday with Claude (Fiddler) Williams at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City. "I love those tunes by Cole Porter and Gershwin and Duke Ellington. And I try to be melodic in my solos, instead of playing a lot of dry patterns."

His aim with solos is to make perfect musical sense.

"I try to remain logical and not ramble," he said, "to resolve ideas and not just leave you hanging, to try and raise the level with each chorus so that I reach a natural climax. Then I'm happy and the people who are listening are happy."

When Johnson was 13, he was given his first instrument by his father. "He just told me I looked like I could play it," he said. "My father was a jazz fan, and there was always music in the house."

As a youth, Johnson first became a fan of Kenny Burrell, and then Montgomery. He practiced devotedly, and by 1971, landed his first prime job: a four-year stint with renowned organist McDuff. Johnson landed the post on a recommendation from Benson, who is also from Pittsburgh and who knew the younger man's capabilities.

Next came a two-year hitch with renowned alto player Donaldson, which preceded Johnson's 1979 move to New York. There he was active with Owens (who took him on a State Department-sponsored tour of Africa) as well as with Willis Jackson, one of the best of blues-based jazz tenor saxophonists, reed man Sonny Fortune and many others.

Johnson left New York in 1986--"My wife hated it," he says--and returned to Pittsburgh, where things were slow. When he and his wife separated in 1989, he began to make trips to Los Angeles to visit his hometown buddy, sax man Dale Fielder.

"I thought the jazz guitar field was wide open here, so I moved," he said.

Wherever he's been, he's found life in music to be very therapeutic.

"It keeps you out of trouble," he said, "keeps you young, gives you something to live for so that each day you can be a better artist, a better person."

* Eric Johnson plays with bassist Bobby Haynes tonight at the Coffee Plantation, 401 Newport Center Drive, #A101, Newport Beach. 6 p.m., No cover, no minimum. (714) 640-5804. Also Friday with Haynes at Mum's, 144 Pine Ave., Long Beach. 6 p.m. No cover, no minimum. (310) 437-7700.

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