Ellen Johnson: Form & Formless

Ya know what the problem is with most female singers? They either sound like they’re taking up a second career by re-hashing The Great American Songbook, or they try to sound ultra artsy by going avant garde and filling a disc with “eee ah ugh ooo” and various pants and huffs that sound like some sonic form of a Jackson Pollock painting.

Ellen Johnson successfully walks the tightrope of making jazz vocals accessible, but also keeping it fresh and spontaneous here, as she teams up in duo formats with guitarists Larry Koonse and John Stowell in a mix of richly prism-ed reads of classics like “Naima” and “Nature Boy” while also delving into a series of freely improvised pieces that are high on melody and low on self indulgence.

Johnson uses multi tracks of her voice to create a wondrously wordless read of Coltrane’s “Naima” while she creates a haunting orchestral opening on Mingus’ “ Weird Nightmare.” Nolan Shaheed adds a trumpet on  a take of “’Round Midnight” that has Johnson’s voice sound like a full moon gleaming through a draped window. As for the improvisations, she sounds like she’s at a back porch in the Delta with Stowell as she coos the blues on “Nolan’s Notorious Nocturne” and does some fragrant and soft percussion that has her and Koonse take you to a Brazilian village on “Infinity is Forever.” Through it all, Johnson’s voice is clear and flexible as she effortlessly reaches down to subtones before swooping up like a pelican retrieving its prey to higher altitudes. A real charmer.



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