Ellen Johnson - "These Days"

(Vocal Visions)
Ellen Johnson

Review by Brad Walseth

In late 1976, a female jazz singer released an album of duets in which she was paired with bassist Arild Andersen. This album - called "Sheila" after the singer Sheila Jordan, and subsequent duet releases where the inventive vocal experimenter Jordan was matched with bassist Harvie Swartz - had a profound influence on a young singer from Chicago. 30 years later, this singer - now relocated to L.A., has released a new album featuring several vocal/bass duets - dedicated to the relatively unknown and criminally underappreciated Sheila Jordan.

Ellen Johnson is the younger singer, and her new album is called "These Days." The overriding theme of the album is the wide range of emotions the singer has experienced during the last several years, and the unique song choices reflect this vision. Running along a spectrum from rocker Jackson Browne's title track to her experimental duet with Ms. Jordan herself ("Little Messenger") that ends the album, Johnson embraces an array of musical styles. Many of the tracks are indeed, as expected, duets with a bassist - in this case Darek Oles (Oleszkiewicz) - whose playing is sensitive, creative and strong in support. Guitarist Larry Koonse, drummer Roy McCurdy and percussionist Ana Gazzola contribute exquisite colors to this painting in sound as well. Koonse especially sparkles: his guitar work almost impressionistic on the tracks on which he appears.

Johnson has a full rich voice with a 4 octave range, but she focuses primarily on her lower and middle registers on this recording. She credits Jordan as a mentor, but her voice is very different than the older singer, as can be clearly heard on their wonderful duet on Jordan's gospel- tinged "The Crossing." Jordan has a small voice and seemingly limited range, yet her imagination and timing are incredible. Johnson's voice is bigger and creamier, but she clearly has been influenced by Sheila Jordan's creativity and storytelling ability. A good example is on Darek Oles' original "Inspiration" where she improvises a lovely, wordless, melody that floats gracefully over the music like a tropic bird.

A poet, as well as a singer, Johnson has written lyrics to two of Charles Mingus songs - "Noddin' Ya Head Blues" and "Nostalgia in Times Square," and these are two highlights. It's great to hear these wonderful songs with vocal accompaniment. The singer covers somewhat lesser-known standards like "No Moon at All," "If I Should Lose You" and "You Don't Know What Love Is" delighfully. I am also especially pleased by her work on the lovely, bittersweet Jobim tune - "Esperanca Perdida (I Was Just One More For You), as well as her haunting version of the late lamented British folksinger Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes."

Vocal/bass duets can be difficult to pull off even with the best of talent, due to the inherent limitations in harmony; but such pairings can be rewarding as well, as when within the rawness of the presentation, the melody can be plainly heard (and felt emotionally) without the distractions of excessive ornamentation. Johnson and Oles are able to pull off the duets nicely, while the intriguing song choices and addition of other musicians and singers on other tracks takes the musical journey into pleasantly divergent directions. In the end, "These Days" is not only a moving testament to the personal journey of Ms. Johnson's life, but also an enjoyable introduction to two great singers of depth and spirit: Ellen Johnson and her mentor, Sheila Jordan.

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