Enzo's Jazz, Jolly Hotel Madison Towers
New York, New York
October 19, 2007
Jazz singer/songwriter Ellen Johnson made a rare night club appearance in Manhattan coinciding with the release of her album These Days. Johnson is a transplanted Chicagoan who had lived in the San Diego area until 1999 when she relocated to the Los Angeles area. While in San Diego, the talented and versatile vocalist worked as a musician and educator, serving as an instructor at the University of San Diego and the OId Globe Theatre. Since the mid 1980's, she has been conducting voice clinics and performed special concerts of Duke Ellington's Sacred Music. At the 2004 IAJE Conference in New York, she served as moderator of a panel discussion entitled: "The Evolution of Vocal Jazz Singing: Where Are We Headed?"
At the time of this New York gig, there was some buzz about Ellen's album being eligible for a 2008 Jazz Vocal Grammy Nomination, and the positive press that These Days has thus far generated could only contribute to that objective.
For this occasion, her group consisted of Ray Gallon, piano; David Ambrosio, bass; and Michael T. A. Thompson, drums. Despite a balky microphone cable, the singer launched into a spirited version of Sonny Rollins' "St.Thomas" with her own original lyrics (and the approval of the esteemed Mr. Rollins). After the melody, Johnson scatted effectively while her musicians each took solo turns. For her second number, she turned to the title tune of her recent, eponymous album. "These Days," heretofore best known as a Jackson Browne ballad, provided a very positive case on behalf of taking a song out of its original setting and giving it new life as a jazz-inflected tunesimilar to Cassandra Wilson's use of material from rock and blues idioms.
Johnson then performed another song from the album, the standard "No Moon At All," as an intimate duet with bassist Dave Ambrosioa performance that was a real crowd pleaser. The singer shifted to a composition from the late saxophonist John Stubblefield, "You Know My Eyes," which she performed in vocalese. At the height of the number, the mic went dead, and when it became apparent that it wasn't going to work at all, she discarded it, went out on the club floor and sang without any amplification. The audience, several of whom are in the entertainment business themselves, were visibly impressed by this show of true grit.
The featured performer's next choice was a full-fledged bebop vocal"A Bird Song For Sheila," written by reedman Jim Snidero as a musical and personal tribute to jazz singer Sheila Jordan (who appears on two songs from Johnson's new album). The intricate lyrics sung in the style of Jordan (full-tilt Eddie Jefferson- type wording) were somewhat defused by the forgiving acoustics of the club, which allowed for less-than- perfect execution. Finishing the lyrics, the vocalist scatted before handing off to Gallon for a nifty solo followed by an equally deft turn by Ambrosio.
Deeply interested in the sacred works of Duke Ellington, Johnson next sang Duke's inimitable lyrics and music to "Heaven" (from the Second Concert of Sacred Music), followed by solos from Ambrosio and Thompson, during which time the pace shifted to a medium tempo. As she had done earlier, another tune from the Jackson Browne songbook was introduced and then dramatically presented. I doubt that anyone in the room expected to hear "My Opening Farewell" as anything other than an acoustic rock ballad. But as was the case on "These Days," Johnson displayed great range and stage presence in delivering this song as prime-time material for a jazz singer.
The vocalist then introduced her version of Charles Mingus' "Peggy's Blue Skylight" via an amusing anecdote about the process of writing lyrics for the song. Initially not realizing there was a bridge in the tune, she consequently hadn't pre-planned any words for that portion of the tune. Upon second thought, she explained, that part of the song worked equally well as an instrumental.
The set closed with a lengthy blues that the singer, having penned the tune some years ago, apparently felt required some justification of its present-day relevance. But basically the nature of the lyrics didn't require much of an update. With the exception of the elimination of some topical celebrities, the subject holds as true as ever, and even today O. J. Simpson is "still in the news..."
In any case, "TV News Blues" proved a delight for all of its 15 minutesin fact, the vocalist clearly was at her peak in communicating with her audience. She even used the looser structure of the tune for some call-response exchanges with her musicians, asking them one-by-one what gave them the blues. Not only was it an effective closer, showcasing both the featured performer and her outstanding trio, but as a bonus it allowed room for three expressive solos.