..."the real secret weapon on the album is the prodigiously talented vocalist Aubrey Johnson."
Randy Napoleon: Puppets – The Music Of Gregg Hill
— By Roger Farbey,
The Montgomery, Green and Burrell flavoured guitarist is joined by a virtuoso singer who reminds at times of Flora Purim
Guitarist Randy Napoleon was born in Brooklyn, New York but grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His musical journey has encompassed stints with Freddie Cole and Michael Bublé, residence in Detroit, a spell in NY and a return to Michigan in 2014 where he met prolific composer Gregg Hill. He is currently associate professor of jazz guitar at Michigan State University. Puppets is his second collaboration with Hill, the first being Brothers: The Music Of Gregg Hill (Cold Plunge Records, 2019).
Apart from his pleasingly accessible playing, redolent of Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and Kenny Burrell, the real secret weapon on the album is the prodigiously talented vocalist Aubrey Johnson. A teacher in the voice department at Berklee College of Music, she made her debut as leader with Unraveled (Outside in Music, 2020), which was received with critical acclaim. Proof, if it were needed, of her virtuosity is evident on the final note of Lyrica, where she hits a spine-tingling high D with surgical precision.
Of the remaining 10 tracks, four contain lyrics: three were penned by Napoleon while Truck Driver’s Blues, a straight country and western song, came from Hill. The other tunes are delivered wordlessly by Johnson and might remind the listener of Flora Purim’s contribution to the first incarnation of Chick Corea’s Return To Forever.
The title track, appropriately the strongest tune on the album, is endowed with a hauntingly memorable head. Napoleon’s solo here is typical of his excursions throughout, showing him to be a craftsman-like guitarist who plays to fulfill the instrumentalist’s role rather than dominate with flashiness or unsuppressed egotism. In short, he is a very fine guitarist indeed. Hill’s attractive compositions consolidate Puppets as a thoroughly satisfying album which does not require repeated plays to win the listener over, although repeated plays will be inevitable.
Discography Andy’s Lament; Fan-O-Gram; The Jazzdiddy Waltz; Lyrica; Moonscape; Puppets; Still Life With Tuba; The Unknown Ballade; Tone Colors; Truck Driver’s Blues; Wide River (63.35) Napoleon (elg); Aubrey Johnson (v); Seth Ebersole (bcl, f); Rick Roe (p); Rodney Whitaker (b); Quincy Davis (d) and others. Lansing, Michigan, 28-29 June 2021.