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Chicago-raised vocalist and educator Ellen Johnson emerges with a disc that explores her vast range and improvisational technique without attempting to sound pretentious, an all-too-common trait among jazz vocalists. This is evident throughout These Days, but most specifically on bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz' bossa nova-tinged "Inspiration, a wordless tune which features Brazilian percussionist Ana Gazzola on shakers and guitarist Larry Koonse; Johnson sings the melody with incredible softness, going even softer during the guitarist's accomplished solo for a unique backdrop.
Another moment worth mentioning is her treatment of the Jackson Browne title track. While the original has more of an acoustic folk approach, Johnson uses the melody to showcase her vocal chops, Koonse again shining with clever riffs and a subtle solo. Maybe the only weak track is "I Feel The Same, Johnson's trumpet-like vocal failing to impress though kudos to Oleszkiewicz' accompaniment, the heart and soul of an otherwise lackluster tune.
This does not outshine other great points, such as Antonio Carlos Jobim/Billy Blanco's "Esperança Perdida, sung both in Portuguese and English (lyrics provided by Ray Gilbert) or Johnson's playful original lyrics to Charles Mingus' "Noddin' Ya Head Blues done as a vocal/bass duet. Also appealing is the original "Little Messenger, a spoken-word poem (featured as a bonus track) dedicated to Sheila Jordan, who provides clever vocal improvisation in the background.
These Days is a highly enjoyable disc that needs several spins in order to be properly grasped. Maybe because of Johnson's academic background (she teaches at the University of San Diego), the disc might come off as a bit hard to feel at first, but if you just allow yourself to enjoy it, the pleasure of the listening experience will be that much greater .
Track Listing: These Days; No Moon At All; The Crossing; Inspiration; I Feel The Same; Noddin' Ya Head Blues; Esperanca Perdida (I Was Just One More For You); Who Knows Where the Time Goes; If I Should Lose You; You Don't Know What Love Is; Nostalgia In Times Square; Little Messenger (For Sheila Jordan).
Personnel: Ellen Johnson: vocals; Derek Oles: bass; Larry Koonse: guitar; Roy McCurdy: drums; Ana Gazzola: percussion; Sheila Jordan: guest vocals.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.