Wilmington’s Cameron Art Museum is one of the less publicized locales in town for cultural events. Yet a look at their website reveals a regular and varied array of happenings, including concerts. One of these concerts, given by El Jaye Johnson & The Port City All-Stars, took place this past Thursday. Led by drums and guitar, they showed versatility in playing styles ranging across African, jazz, and Caribbean, and gave the audience a rocking good time.
First up was the tune that gave the title to the evening’s performance: “The Rhythm is Gonna Get Ya.” This pounding number had a strong African character, with the conga drums predominating and emphatic repeating rhythmic patterns throughout. El Jaye Johnson, in one of his several roles, chanted occasionally in a pattern suggestive of hip-hop, while Teddy Burgh on flute, barely audible, added to the rhythmic ambience. A drum solo by Mike Hanson gave the congas extra prominence in this highly energized number.
The next tune, “Higher Ground,” illustrated the “cross-pollination” that was mentioned in the introduction to the concert. It started with a basic rhythm reminiscent of boogie-woogie and eventually slid into an electric rock sound, with heavily amplified guitar. Pizzazz was added as El Jaye strolled through the audience with the guitar. There was another lively, hard-to-hear flute solo, and a keyboard solo by Kevin Kolb. In rock fashion, the drum set, played by Troy Pierce, took a more central role here.
The third number moved into what was described as a reggae-style version of “a jazz favorite.” Beginning with syncopated guitar chords, this lighter-textured piece turned out to be “Summertime,” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. El Jaye again performed on vocals, singing in a line-by-line rhythmic style, sometimes in call and response with the band. This was the first number where rhythm was somewhat balanced by melody. All of the players had solos here. The bass guitar, played by Taylor Lee, had some effective dialogue with the lead guitar. The audience joined in clapping with the congas. In this gentler context, the flute was heard more. Teddy Burgh came over as a player with a full tone who deserved more prominence than was possible in this context. He also played an attractive piccolo obbligato at the end.
The next number was a very different jazz standard, "So What" by Miles Davis. El Jaye played trumpet for the tune and then took the first solo. The overall performance showed considerable virtuosity and energy, as opposed to the more leisurely character of Miles’ iconic original. The flute had an agile solo, followed by an energetic bass guitar segment. After the reprise of the tune, it ended with a showing by the drums.
"St. Thomas," in calypso style, was next. It began with all percussion, with the drum set holding the background. Later there were keyboard punctuations and the piccolo played a tuneful, appealing interlude. This one maintained a dance quality throughout, though louder and with more intense rhythm towards the end.
El Jaye presented himself as composer in the last number, "Ell’s Tune." This excellent tune started with a modal, new-age sound, rather lyrical and mellow. El Jaye picked up with a guitar solo, and after flute and keyboard segments, returned with a psychedelic sound, more like a high-powered rock instrumental. Then the two drummers took over in a showy, dynamic solo that culminated in all-out virtuosity on the congas. This was a rip-roaring climax to the program and a veritable showcase for Mike Hanson. Along the way, the drum set picked up on his rhythm in a strong accumulation of energy, before the solo turned back to the congas for a virtuosic display of rapid hand techniques. Finally the two joined again and reached a climactic cut-off, which could have been a dramatic ending. But after a pause, the tune re-entered, much calmer now, to bring the song and the concert to an enthusiastically received close.