In jazz vernacular, “groove” refers to the pulse of the rhythm section. To have a nice groove, an ensemble has to find the right balance between keeping steady time and swinging –– a pushing and pulling of the rhythm. In many ways, legendary jazz pianist Johnny Case has struck a similar harmony between work and pleasure.
At his Eastside home the other day, he joked that three years after his 28-year stint as the house pianist for the now-defunct Italian restaurant Sardines Ristorante Italiano, he is finally semi-retired. With a cushy once-a-week engagement at Lili’s Bistro on West Magnolia Avenue and occasional freelance gigs, the veteran jazzbo excitedly talked about what it’s like to finally have weekends off.
“I love it,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to go back to playing six nights a week like I did at Sardines for 28 years.”
The break from playing allowed him some time to record a new album, the latest of more than a dozen solo efforts. Johnny Case and his Texas Swingtet also presented him an opportunity to collaborate with a musician whom Case has admired for decades, saxophonist Billy Briggs. The former sideman for Western swing legend Bob Wills was the reason Case decided to record a Western swing album. Briggs, now in his early 90s, is even featured on the cover of the album.
Many of the songs are engineered to showcase the jazz-tinged, rich, voluminous sound that made Briggs a popular soloist with Western swing bands in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.
Case, as a child growing up in Paris, Texas, in the mid-1950s, used to listen to Briggs perform on the Dallas-based radio program “Big D Jamboree.”
“He played with a lot of fire,” Case recalled. “He’s not a hardcore jazz player, but he’s a swing player with a jazz influence.”
The two met several years later in Dallas at the Aragon Ballroom in the late 1950s. By then, the 18-year-old Case had developed into a versatile self-taught pianist with help from his older brother, guitarist Jerry Case.
When Briggs showed up to sub for an absentee horn player, Case recognized him instantly. The well-known horn player had an easygoing personality that “made you relax,” Case said. Decades later in 2012, a mutual friend invited Case to Briggs’ 90th birthday party. The saxophonist was still spry and played with the same captivating sound that Case remembered as a teenager. Knowing that the veteran Western swing horn player was getting up in years, Case asked Briggs if he would play on an album of swing tunes.
Recorded at Patrick McGuire Recording Inc. in Arlington, the 10-tracks of soulful, mid-tempo traditional swing tunes feature Briggs (tenor saxophone), Case (piano), Chris Clarke (bass), Greg Hardy (drums/vocals), and Walter Lyons (guitar).
In keeping with older recording techniques, Case had the ensemble perform together rather than on separate tracks.
“I appreciate when things are done live,” he said. “The chemistry that happens between the musicians is real.”
One number, “Bluebonnet Lane,” is decidedly country in sound. Case takes it easy on the recording, lightly comping behind twangy guitar melodies while Clarke’s leisurely bass lines hold the rhythm. “C Jam Blues” is a lively rendition of a popular Duke Ellington tune. Replete with hard swinging solos from Case, Briggs, Lyons, and Clarke, the number provides a nice contrast to the laid back Western swing tracks.
The ease with which the songs on the album are a balanced mélange of Western swing, blues, and jazz reflects the influence “race music,” as it was called back in the early-to-mid-20th century, had on mainstream country music, Case said. Jazz and Western swing have always had a lot in common, he added, and musicians from both traditions often dabbled in the genres.
Case isn’t afraid to use jazzy chord voicings on his tunes. As a kid, he heard many pioneering Western swing guitarists and steel guitar musicians use lush chords with numerous extensions.
With his lighter workload, the veteran jazz pianist has more time for listening and reflecting on the music he loves.
“I never went into music to make a lot of money,” he said. “It truly is not the main reason I play music. I play for the love of it.”
[box_info]Johnny Case Trio
6:30pm Sat at Lili’s Bistro, 1310 W Magnolia Av, FW. Free. 817- 877-0700.[/box_info]