Review, Small ensemble, Straight ahead

Lucien Johnson + 5

a2788670674_16.jpgThe eponymously titled album ‘Lucian Johnson+5’ was first released in 2016 and has recently been re-released in Japan on vinal. I have only encountered Johnson performing once or twice as he has spent a lot of time outside of New Zealand. He was born in Wellington, but led an interesting life elsewhere, travelling the world with various innovative bands and living for long periods in Paris. I first encountered him when he toured with ‘The Troubles; a delightfully anarchic folksy ensemble he co-founded along with Scottish Jazz drummer John Rae. After hearing Lucien Johnson+5, I will be paying close attention to his futures offerings.

I became aware of the album’s existence soon after its release, but carelessly lost the Bandcamp access code when I changed computers. I finally regained access, listened and was immediately impressed. This is a mature piece of work with real depth. Given the diversity of experience, the musicians bring to the project that is hardly surprising.  Johnson’s musicianship and compositional abilities are well known – pare him with these five musicians and you get something special. Any project involving Crayford, French, O’Connor, Van Dijk and Callwood is going to grab the attention.

There is a certain mood emanating from this album, a palpable sense of the Iberian Peninsula. It is more than just the track names – it cuts far deeper than that. You will not hear overt Jazz Flamenco or Moorish tunes. You will hear reflective ballads, Latin, hard swing and all with fine arrangements (arrangements which evoke the hay-day of the classic Jazz ensemble). The album warmly invites us to engage, and the deeper we engage the greater the reward. The musicians were clearly onboard with the project and each of them gets a chance to shine. There are many wonderful solos, none that are too long and each solo harnessing to the spirit of the collective. Brilliant musicians all, but with no egos on display.

‘Light Shaft’ has a dancy Latin feel with French and Johnson reacting to Crayford’s rhythmic accenting; Crayford later tying it all together with a masterful solo. ‘El Cid’ is another great tune, again with a Latin American flavour, this time Afro Cuban. The clave aside, it evokes the Reconquista hero perfectly. El Cid’s is a tale well worth the re-telling; especially since modern scholars discovered that his antecedents were actually Moors, the very people he fought with such evangelistic fervour – a modern parable. ‘Zapata’ is another delightful tune and with plenty of meat on the bone.  It opens with O’Connor beating out a Krupa like rhythm on the toms, the ensemble comes in next, navigating a skillfully arranged head with nimble ease. Van Dijk and Crawford follow with stunning solos, but everyone is superb. This is a great piece of ensemble playing and above all it is fun. Here is Zapata:

My favourite from the album is ‘Asturias’. This track has a thoughtful quality and as many layers as a ripe onion. In spite of being a sextet, the ensemble sounds like a nonet at times – capturing the vibe of 50’s Gil Evans. This lies mainly in the skillful writing, as space and texture are maximised. The rich voicings of the horn line are also of importance, as they somehow manage to convey substance and airiness at the same time. Nick Van Dijk in particular, utilising the opportunity to shine through. Crayford and Callwood also have essential roles – Crayford creating a strumming effect, as Callwood did in the opening bars. Asturias is a region of northwestern Spain and also a Flamenco guitar style (a style often adapted to other instruments). Albeniz wrote in this style in the 19th century,  The melody over a strummed pedal chord (the thumb playing the melody line).

When we listen to evocative music, we bring our imagination to the experience. Whether intended by Johnson or not, this album took me back to Spain. I have travelled extensively in Andalucia and rekindling those memories through this music was a pleasure. The artwork is also superb and that is credited to George Johnson. The best place to source this album is on Bandcamp or via the Lucien Johnson website. lucienjohnson5.bandcamp.com

 

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