The last time we wrote about the Johnson Swingtet, it was a five-piece band that specialized in Django Reinhardt-style pre-World War II jazz. That’s still a central part of what the band does, but a lot can happen in two years, and the Swingtet has broadened its scope in the last few months with new members and a wider spectrum of influences to draw from.
The main trio of the group is now guitarist/singer Eugene Johnson, who’s been central to the Swingtet since it formed in 2007, guitarist/lap steel maestro Steve Karla, and guitarist/singer Leo Johnson. Leo Johnson, formerly of the North Carolina old-time string band the Space Heaters, moved to Knoxville earlier this year specifically to play with the Swingtet.
“He’s a really great singer and a really fine picker,” Eugene Johnson says. “It’s another step for our band.”
So there’s now a rotating cast of 10 players who perform with the Swingtet in various configurations. Eugene Johnson says that’s paying off as the group starts concentrating on producing more original material in place of covers and jazz standards. “[Cellist] Andy Breyton has been coming up with songs, and so has Leo,” Johnson says. “That’s a new thing. And there’s a lot that certain players bring to the group—we’re adding a lot of Western swing and roots music into what we do. The neat thing about the size of the group is that we can mix and match, depending on the occasion. We can do everything from a two-piece up to a big band.”
The band has been playing recent regular happy hours shows at Chez Liberty in Bearden, starting at 6:30 p.m.; they’ll be there tonight. They’re also playing a jazz brunch at the S&W Grand on Gay Street on Sunday afternoons at 12:30 p.m.