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Aubrey Johnson: Unraveled

Dan Bilawsky By

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Aubrey Johnson: Unraveled
Serving as a statement of elucidation, exploration and emotional reasoning, Unraveled lays bare a unique soul while presenting a clear-headed means of disentangling complex artistic threads. It's an album that's as sophisticated as it is accessible and as personal as it is universal in its line(s) of thought. In short, it's a debut destined to stand out from the pack.

Over the past decade, give or take, vocalist Aubrey Johnson has carved out a unique niche with her unerring wordless vocals and crystalline communication skills with a lyric. Her vocals have found an important place in the work of Jason Yeager, Andrew Rathbun, Fred Hersch, Bobby McFerrin, Sara Serpa, John Zorn and numerous other up-and-comers and heavyweights, and her broad skill set—not unlike that of a Jo Lawry or Luciana Souza—has made her a first-call find and an indispensable part of the scene in New York and beyond. Now, with Unraveled, she steps into the spotlight to present an absorbing collection of covers and originals.

Opening on "No More 'I Love You's"—a twice-baked tune, as a single for The Lover Speaks in the mid '80s and a hit for Annie Lennox almost a decade later—Johnson immediately establishes her arranging bona fides and emotionally-rich vocal delivery. Steering the proceedings with smart lines handed off to bassist Matt Aronoff and multi-reedist Michael Sachs (on bass clarinet), employing Tomoko Omura's violin with mandolin-like pizzicato phrases and standard arco work, adding personalized rhythmic, melodic and harmonic graces to the template, and providing space for pianist Chris Ziemba to shine, the song becomes her own. Johnson follows that with two originals—"Love Again," a piece focused on the "if" and "what if" surrounding an unsure future with love, and the title track, a driven and expertly-woven look at tackling depression and mental health issues through an art of self-discovery. Each of those numbers, in tone and context, can function as a glimpse of an inner monologue or a full-blown look at outward expression, and both prove profound and profoundly moving.

The seven remaining tracks further the picture(s) of Johnson and her art that are established early on, provide a platform for the work of her bandmates, and hint at some personal favorites from the jazz and Brazilian canons. Originals like "Lie In Wait," calmly and attractively exploring the point of departure that sets a potential long distance relationship in motion, and the patiently poetic "These Days," co-written by Johnson's brother, Gentry, forward her status as a songwriter; Sachs' "Happy To Stay" plays on the realities of decisions, using sharp wordplay, weighty charms and hip groove work (moored by drummer Jeremy Noller) to its advantage; Omura's perky "Voice is Magic" connects the voice to the natural world, with Johnson serving as the magician and serving up the song's Japanese lyrics; and a trio of choice covers—an appropriately absorbing trip through "The Peacocks," a breezy "Dindi" given to smart coloring from Vitor Gonçalves' accordion, and a playfully refined "Karate"—nod to forces and figures as different and distinctive as Jimmy Rowles, Norma Winstone, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Egberto Gismonti.

While there's no way to absorb and understand an artist's complete vision and passions in a single statement, this is really as good a start as you can get. Unraveled uncovers and unmasks a good deal about Aubrey Johnson, and it does so with supreme style and honesty.

Track Listing

No More 'I Love You's; Love Again; Unraveled; Happy To Stay; Lie In Wait; Voice Is Magic; The Peacocks; Dindi; These Days; Karate.

Personnel

Aubrey Johnson: voice / vocals; Chris Ziemba: piano; Matt Aronoff: bass; Jeremy Noller: drums; Michael Sachs: clarinet, bass; Tomoko Omura: violin; Vitor Gonçalves: accordion.

Album information

Title: Unraveled | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Outside in Music

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