Homer Alaska - Arts

Story last updated at 2:06 PM on Thursday, February 17, 2011

Johnny B is Homer Renaissance man

By James Hutchinson
Special to the Homer News

There's a verve that hangs about the musician Johnny B, an exuded flavor that finds the man weave through handshakes, trust, and then straight to a metaphysical elbow to the soul: he'll no sooner learn your name, than dial a gem off his piano.

"—sit on the couch and╔ You're not going, are you?" Johnny B asks, supremely disappointed as someone bows to leave. He immediately bounces back and grins, turning to the remaining party, wholly intent on converting a new unsold soul.

This energy can be seen in his trademark styles which have been thrown across the Homer music scene, those staples which he affably refers to as "boogie-woogie, some jazz, and a little bit of rock-and-roll." For all of this, Johnny has come to be known as a freewheeling pianist, an artist endued with the ability to create a certain brand of feel good.

But Homer has forgotten one truth amidst this stamped signature: Johnny B is the consummate Renaissance man. He has a masters degree in education, encourages youth to read by playing his piano in assemblies where he accompanies his wife Sharon Bushell and a reading of her books "The Trouble With Bernie" and "Bernie Jones and The Blazing Bandits," has authored two Sudoku puzzle books, designed and maintained Homer Middle School's website, and co-hosted, directed music, co-produced and composed for a national radio program entitled "The End of the Road" — and this doesn't even account for his work in film. There are parts fundamental to a comprehensive study of the musician, and if possible, Johnny B is even more than his numerous parts would suggest.

His new show at 7 p.m. Friday Feb. 18 at Homer Council on the Arts will likely remind Homer of this, for in the past, where Johnny B has dazzled by himself, played with the vocalist Beth Seiler and tried his hand at accordion playing in the "nontraditional" bluegrass group "Work In Progress," he's now set to reveal a fusillade of wholly original work which incorporates video, technical know how, layered compositions, and a backstage peek into Johnny B's methodology.

The culmination of Johnny B's exhibition — which Johnny B describes as "Not a rock-and-roll show" — sees him capture the essence of Alaska animals with rollicking orchestral pieces. Johnny B says, "15 years ago I was approached by Daniel Zatz to compose music for a children's video. The present project is a remake with HD quality and new images and music." Audiences should expect a presentation of his pieces: "Dall Reel," "Polar Bear Strut," "Caribou March," "Open Sea, Patchwork" and the "2X4 Boogie."

To patrons of Johnny B's public exhibition, there will doubtless be an attendant notion of the man as a singular artist, an example being his piece "The Life of a Salmon," which he first plays "acoustically" with an ordinary piano, and then cycles through the stages of development on this "beautiful but sad" number.

"I sketch melodies, and all I have to do is stretch that one strand," he says, "It has to sound real; it starts as a real acoustic thing."

Johnny B may believe the piano to encourage greater improvisation, but he shows little electronic reticence once he has "sketched" his melody. Converting the music into hard data, Johnny B edits the groove using an impressive reservoir of sounds to repurpose his ditties and reveal their hidden planes. He deftly illustrates this process by rhythmically tapping two nondescript keys with staccato fingers, which are recorded, and instantaneously, the once chiming interplay of the keyboard has transformed into a stoic snare drum, beating a theme which runs through Johnny B's piece, "The Caribou March." The finished product is invariably a sleek opus which sees B's "boogie-woogie" piano fulfilling the orchestral roles of strings, wind, and percussion — all at the same time. The pianist becomes a one-man band, composer, and symphony hall company as the disparate segments are woven into a lyrical whole.

None of this has been derived by happy accident, but marshaled by a life spent in music.

"I played the claves when I was five years old, and was taught every style of music," he says. He pauses to look around his den, neatly armed with every conceivable permutation of instrument, hanging about and crowding around the spacious room like low hanging fruit. He affably bookends the sentence: "I have pianos╔ I have bass guitars."

And as for his formidable skill at the piano, Johnny B holds a few raw truisms: "I had great parents who asked me if I wanted to learn. They took me to lessons, and I practiced a little every day."

This ethic has clearly been conveyed onto Johnny B, who constructed a music room and accommodated anyone willing to learn, including his son and daughter: "Music was going on all the time."

His lifelong devotion hasn't been for a lack of passion. He fondly says of his current output: "This is what I want to do; I was put on Earth to write music." And it's assuredly difficult to see the man separated from his piano; in most of his complementary avenues of expression, music has bled into and allowed for a broader context in his life and those around him.

In spite of Johnny B's success, he concedes that the Homer music scene leaves something to be desired: "There isn't enough opportunity for musicians in this town; you can play in bars, and maybe some background music at local functions. But writing music, it's not a great place for a musician." He continues, "Homer strongly supports the visual arts, but for musicians, it's mostly just the bar scene." After a few moments he ends with, "Maybe Homer is just beginning to support music."

Though Johnny B presents an apt and worrying portrait of Homer's music scene, events sponsored by Homer Council on the Arts are only serving to legitimize music in our seaside villa; with Johnny B back on the scene, and sporting a repertoire of compositions unique to Alaska and our communal moment of history, it's hard to see his show as anything other than a step in the right direction.

And what does Johnny B think of this?

"I'm as happy as a clam at high tide."