Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Mesmerizingly Eclectic Debut Album From Singer Aubrey Johnson

Singer Aubrey Johnson has been a rivetingly individualistic part of the fabric of the New York jazz scene, with both large and small ensembles for the better part of a decade. So it’s hard to believe that she’s only now releasing her debut album as a bandleader. That record, Unraveled, is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a chance to hear her arrestingly clear, crystalline voice delivering her own material as well as a few vastly multistylistic covers: it was worth the wait. Johnson has newfound gravitas in her lower registers as well as a little Americana rusticity further up the scale, bolstering an already formidable stylistic arsenal.

Herer she’s joined by by pianist Chris Ziemba, drummer Jeremy Noller and bassist Matt Aronoff, along with austere violin from  Tomoko Omura. The band launch into a straight-up trip-hop groove to kick off the album with the understatedly angst-ridden twists and turns of No More I Love Yous, written by obscore 80s new wave duoThe Lover Speaks: “I used to have demons in my room at night,” Johnson confides.

She switches to Portuguese for an expansively spare take of the Jobim standard Dindi, Michael Sachs adding graceful clarinet. The duet between Johnson and Aronoff is tantalizingly brief; her spiraling vocalese before she sings the final verse in English wil give you goosebumps.

She leaps around, over fluttery bass clarinet, Ziemba’s insistent minimalism and Noller’s altered trip-hop beat in Happy to Stay, a souped-up chamber pop tune that sounds like Gretchen Parlato on steroids. Karate is a coyly funny, blippily wordless remake of a famous Egberto Gismonti theme that echoes Johnson’s Mycale bandmate Sofia Rei‘s most playful work.

“The dawn is calling your name,” Johnson intones soberly in the moodily syncopated ballad Lie in Wait, “Are we just hanging on to prove everybody wrong?” Sachs and Omura add judiciously energetic solos as the band go scampering. Ripples from Ziemba and the bass clarinet permeate Love Again, Johnson’s voice rising and dipping from daunting heights as the beat grows funkier.

Her take of Jimmy Rowles’ noir jazz classic The Peacocks, with a bracing solo from Sachs,, is especially spare and cinematic: the rapport with Ziemba’s icy backdrop brings to mind Sara Serpa‘s similarly chilling work with Ran Blake. These Days is not the Joy Division postpunk classic but a poignantly energetic, rainy-day original, Johnson working her entire range as the violin sails, Ziemba’s piano rages and then backs away.

The album’s title track is a song for our time, a portrait of dissociation and alienation: over a shifting modal groove, Johnson asks for anything that would generate some kind of emotional response. Alice Lee‘s most adventurous jazz work comes to mind. And Johnson reaches back to the tropics again with the jauntily lilting, matter-of-fact Voice Is Magic, through a stunningly phantasmagorical midsection. Admittedly, there haven’t been many albums released in the last few weeks, but this is still the frontrunner for best vocal jazz release of 2020.

April 28, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Phil Sargent – A New Day

Brooding, thoughtful and emotionally resonant, guitarist Phil Sargent’s new album transcends the jazz label – although he’s backed up by a first-rate cast of jazz players. The instrumentals here are innovatively arranged for an interesting configuration of piano, bass, drums and also a vocalist in place of a horn player. Singer Aubrey Johnson does a terrific job, her vocalese shifting timbres slightly just as Sargent does, utilizing a pitch pedal in places in the same way that Sargent manipulates his tone with his guitar effects. Aside from a Pat Metheny-esque motorway instrumental, which is straight-up rock, and the remarkably nuanced heavy metal menace of the sixth track (a bit of a breather for the band, who’ve stayed within themselves marvelously up to this point), the whole album is a clinic in how to maintain a mood. With some help from guest keyboardist Brian Friedland on organ and piano on the third track, bassist Greg Loughman and drummer Mike Connors carry a lot of emotional weight here with understated grace.

Johnson sets the tone that will dominate throughout right off the bat on the distantly pensive title track, Sargent taking his time to get going and finally taking flight uneasily with a hint of raw distortion as the bass and drums, and guest pianist John Funkhouser – a marvelously rhythmic choice – rattles around behind him, piano solo moving captivatingly from judicious chords to a full-on swing attack. The second track is all contrasts, Johnson’s understated wistfulness against the melody’s buoyant sway. Bass and guitar follow her in turn, downcast: even when Sargent is finally firing off a flurry of eight notes, he’s still looking over his shoulder. You don’t realize how beautiful this song is until it’s almost over. Johnson sings the dark tango-inflected first verse of the following cut over Sargent’s volume-knob swells. It builds – Sargent feels around for his footing and eventually lands with a terse series of chords before leaving the ground with more of them, then Loughman solos as Sargent plays with his volume knob again.

The well-titled Gridlock opens with bass carrying the melody over Sargent’s fingerpicking, growing from unease to fullscale menace and then backing off (the first person to identify what 70s art-rock phrase Sargent is quoting from at around 1:50 – Robin Trower? Jethro Tull? – wins a prize). They wind up the album with a characteristically subtle, bossa-tinged ballad. This won’t be on some people’s lists of the best jazz albums of 2010 but it’s definitely on ours.

June 18, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment