August 10, 2015
Ellen Johnson Form & Formless (Vocal Visions VV 3000)
The title displays the musical thinking behind Ellen Johnson’s new album. Some of the songs, those with “form” are by jazz masters, among whom are John Coltrane, Naima, Thelonious Monk, ‘Round Midnight, Charles Mingus, Weird Nightmare, and Sonny Rollins, St Thomas, the last named having lyrics by Ellen herself. On most of these “form” songs, Ellen is accompanied by guitarist Larry Koonse (with trumpeter Nolan Shaheed contributing an evocative solo on the Monk song). The “formless” songs draw their description from the work of poet Lao Tzu while their style is that of free improvisation created in the moment by Ellen who is mostly accompanied here by guitarist John Stowell. Speaking of the latter group of songs, Ellen has said, “I love the challenge of free improvisation, so having the opportunity to be supported by two amazing guitarists who are at home in this element made the project an absolute delight.” Throughout all these songs, form and formless, Ellen’s ability to explore the inner workings of mind and heart are vividly displayed. So too is her skill in bringing an almost visual quality to a song through her use of aural imagery. This particular skill is especially apparent here because most of these songs do not have lyrics. Rather, Ellen uses her captivating vocal sound – throughout clear, rich and emotion-filled – as a musical instrument. While Ellen’s interpretations provide guidance, the listener can bring to the occasion personal feelings and memories and the whole experience becomes thoroughly rewarding and one that must surely appeal to audiences from all walks of jazz and contemporary improvised music.
Ellen’s talent extends beyond singing and lyric writing, ranging widely to include education – she presents courses at the California Jazz Conservatory. She is also an accomplished author and in this latter capacity has recently published Jazz Child: Portrait of Sheila Jordan, reviewed here a little while ago.
All of Ellen’s albums, and her book can be found at Amazon.
Mark Winkler JAZZ and Other Four Letter Words (Café Pacific CPCD 45125)
Those who like jazz singing that is very much in the moment yet recalls the hip and cool elements of its splendid past will like Mark Winkler a lot. His tough-edged light baritone vocal sound brings to the lyrics he sings an air of urban sophistication and understanding. Some of these lyrics are from the Great American Songbook, others are drawn from Mark’s extensive list of compositions. Examples here include I Chose The Moon (music by Bill Cantos), Stay Hip (Rich Eames) and My Idea Of A Good Time (Greg Gordon Smith). Mark is accompanied here by some excellent instrumentalists, notably two trios. One of these has Jamieson Trotter, piano, Dan Lutz, Bass, and Mike Shapiro, drums, while the other has Jamieson with John Clayton, bass, and Jeff Hamilton, drums. Joining Mark on two songs, I’m Hip and I Wish I Were In Love Again, is Cheryl Bentyne, long a driving force in vocal group Manhattan Transfer. It is good to see that Mark is helping ensure the future of his craft through jazz education, especially at UCLA Extension and the LA School of Songwriting with his course, “Creating Great Lyrics: A Songwriters Workshop”. This always swinging selection of songs is Mark’s 14th album as leader and will surely appeal to many.
Mark Christian Miller Crazy Moon (Sliding Jazz Door)
For many years Mark Christian Miller has been deeply involved in many aspects of the music business. After learning piano and baritone horn while still in childhood, he sang with light opera companies while extending his musical studies in both piano and voice and also performed as a solo act on the Los Angeles supper club circuit. He made his first own-name album around the turn of the century but for many years worked mainly as artist manager and booker as well as on the production side of music festivals. Encouraged to return to performing, Mark teamed up with pianist Josh Nelson to plan this album. Backed by the core trio of Josh, bassist Dave Robaire and drummer Sammy Miller, Mark presents an interesting selection of songs. While a couple of these, Wrap Your In Dreams and Cheek To Cheek, are familiar, mostly songs heard here are lesser-known works by major songwriters. Among these are Second Chance, by Andre and Dorothy Langdon Previn, Oh, You Crazy Moon, by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, April Fooled Me, by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, and Almost In Your Arms, by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. Mark’s voice is clear, tuneful and mature, while his interpretations of lyrics are insightful. Also heard here are instrumentalists Ron Stout, trumpet, Bob Sheppard, bass clarinet, Larry Koonse, guitar, and Billy Hulting, percussion, all of whom bring excellent solo and supportive touches to the occasion. Arrangements are by Mark and Josh and Jamieson Trotter.