Ellen Johnson

Reviews/Interviews

Jazz Station

Voted Best Female Singer and Best Vocal CD 2015.

These are the complete results of the 37th Annual Jazz Station Awards conducted by the Los Angeles-based jazz journalist, record producer, jazz historian & jazz educator Arnaldo DeSouteiro. Mr. DeSouteiro is a voting member of NARAS-Grammy, as well as of the Jazz Journalists Association and the Los Angeles Jazz Society. He has produced over 830 sessions, according to the All Music Guide website. For more details and a small bio, please check

Ahmad Jamal, Ron Carter, Steve Gadd, Airto Moreira, Bob Mintzer, Vic Juris, Tom Harrell, Mark Egan, Otmaro Ruiz, Jean-Luc Ponty, Hubert Laws, Ellen Johnson and Boris Savoldelli are among the top artists of the year.

 

Jazz Journal

"A highly talented writer, educator and musician, Ellen Johnson is rightly admired by many. Her writing talent was demonstrated with the biography Jazz Child: Portrait of Sheila Jordan (reviewed in the 02/15 issue), while as an educator she presents courses at the California Jazz Conservatory. On this newly released album she displays her special skills as a performer, singing a selection of notable jazz themes by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Sonny Rollins, writing lyrics to St Thomas by the last named. These and Nature Boy are the “form” songs and on most of these she is accompanied by guitarist Larry Koonse. The other songs on this album are “formless”, a description drawn from poet Lao Tzu, their style being free improvisations. These are spontaneous creations by Johnson, heard here mostly with guitarist John Stowell. On these songs, Ellen uses wordless aural imagery to create a visual quality that is a delight to hear and is also both intensely moving and extremely rewarding. Of this style of singing, Ellen says, “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.”

This album presents a thoroughly enjoyable recital of contemporary jazz singing at its very best from an artist of real stature. Unreservedly recommended."

JazzTimes

"When it comes to shaping wordless gems, Johnson packs as imaginative a wallop as the mighty McFerrin."

"An accomplished jazz educator, Johnson was herself taught, at least in part, by Sheila Jordan. (Johnson returned the favor by writing the excellent Jordan biography Jazz Child, released last fall.) Jordan’s influence, particularly her fearlessness, is strongly felt across all 10 of these tracks, all crafted as duos with alternating guitarists John Stowell and Larry Koonse."

 

FULL REVIEW: 

It’s hardly surprising that Ellen Johnson was specially selected by Bobby McFerrin to work with his Voicestra ensemble. When it comes to shaping wordless gems, Johnson packs as imaginative a wallop as the mighty McFerrin. An accomplished jazz educator, Johnson was herself taught, at least in part, by Sheila Jordan. (Johnson returned the favor by writing the excellent Jordan biography Jazz Child, released last fall.) Jordan’s influence, particularly her fearlessness, is strongly felt across all 10 of these tracks, all crafted as duos with alternating guitarists John Stowell and Larry Koonse. Half are free improvisations, the majority with Stowell. The others, most with Koonse, are built upon classics from the Monk, Coltrane, Rollins and Mingus songbooks.

Working without a net, Johnson traverses the static calm of “Fiona Flanagan’s Fable” (curiously reminiscent of the military call “Taps”); the gentle lope and swirl of “Corky’s Caper”; the metronomic undulation of “3-Lonious Bunk”; and the whooping, shamanistic “Nolan’s Notorious Nocturne” (named for guest trumpeter Nolan Shaheed). Her takes on standards are less overtly adventurous yet equally inventive, and include a staccato “Nature Boy”; a cloudy “’Round Midnight” featuring Babs Gonzales’ alternate lyrics; an updated take on “St. Thomas” reset with Johnson’s delightfully tropical (and Rollins-sanctioned) lyric; and a prayer-like drift across Coltrane’s “Naima.”

Riveting Riffs Magazine

Los Angeles Jazz Scene

"Everything works on Form & Formless, one of Ellen Johnson's finest recordings."

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Berkeleyside

"Johnson, who is part of the CJC’s talent-laden vocal faculty, is also celebrating the release of a beautiful new album of duets Form & Formless. Collaborating with guitarists Larry Koonse and John Stowell, she recorded impromptu improvisations, an ethereal wordless rendition John Coltrane’s “Naima,” and a celebratory version of Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” rechristened with her original lyrics as “Sonny’s Isle of St. Thomas.” As the title suggests, the album is all about exploring song form and spontenious invention, creating songs “in the studio with no charts, nothing,” she says. “One person starts and the other follows. With the death of Ornette Coleman I’ve been thinking about how I’ve always loved free improvisation and taking risks. At the same time, we also explore these great compositions in our own voices."

Jazz Weekly

"Get a load of Ellen Johnson’s latest album, Form and Formless. She does a series of rich duets with guitarists Larry Koonse and John Stowell, mixing clever and personal takes of material such as “Naima” and “Nature Boy,” but also does some rich and rewarding free from work that is bluesy, melodious and swingingly arty. This disc will renew your faith in jazz vocals once again."

Ejazz News: ELLEN JOHNSON WRAPS HER COMPELLING VOICE AROUND THE STANDARDS

"The tunes are very carefully selected and help to characterize her as a singer with much more than just fine taste in jazz and the blues."

"Her ‘Sonny’s Isle of St Thomas’ is a sunny and winsome tribute to the legendary tenor saxophonist. The wordless take on ‘Naima’ is reverential. Mingus’s 1946 composition, ‘Weird Nightmare’ (aka ‘Pipe Dream’) is haunting and evocative. Johnson owes a stylistic debt to Sheila Jordan, her long-time mentor."

"The freely improvised and less free form aspects of the album sizzle with originality. Paring things down to the essentials of voice and guitar was an inspired creative decision."

"A gifted songstress with an ear for strong melodies. The elliptical takes on "Round Midnight" and "St Thomas" bear this out amply.
I especially liked Nolan Shaheed's scene-setting and very bluesy trumpet solos." 

Jazz Mostly

“Many musicians touch the heart or the mind or the soul, some reach out to more than one of these, only a few appeal to all. With her new album, Ellen Johnson is clearly one of these select few.”

Jazz Society of Pensacola

"On some of the tunes, she sings words. On others she uses her voice like an instrument. To me, on many of these instrument-like vocals, she sounds like a flute. She hits the notes fully in the center- very much in-tune. I wondered if she has perfect pitch—sounds like it. This is not a standard jazz recording and, because of the form and style, will not have universal appeal. However, this was an intriguing recording for me. I look for future offerings from this talented singer. Now I can understand how Sheila Jordan might have chosen her—not a well-established author—to write her biography."

Conversations with Music @Blogtalk Radio

Interview for pre-release of the recording Form & formless

Jazz Journal International

“Lovely singing, poised, elegant jazz phrasing, articulate and eloquent interpretations of lyrics, imaginative variations on composers’ themes all add up to an excellent whole. This is superior jazz singing by an artist of the highest quality who deserves to be heard much more often and more widely than has been the case thus far. Good as Ellen's first two CDs are, and they are good indeed, this new set is really exceptional and should not be missed by anyone who admires good music sung and played with skill, integrity, and emotional intensity."

LA Times - Live Review

“The singer keeps it plainly powerful in a talent filled show at the Vic.... And she brings it all together in a manner that connects her listeners with the intrinsic honesty of her interpretations. Johnson opened the set with some sterling interaction with (bassist) Darek Oles on “No Moon At All.” Singing as a soloist with only bass accompaniment is a daunting task, potentially exposing strengths as well as weaknesses.. But her interpretations were right on target, finding the heart of the song, sharing its pulse and flow with Oles’ surging bass line. Finally, concluding this engaging evening, there was a stunning duet between the two singers (Sheila Jordan & Ellen Johnson) in Jordan’s “The Crossing.”

Downbeat

“Ellen Johnson's These Days is one of the best albums to be heard from a no-nonsense jazz singer in the past year; she and her recording are worthy of serious consideration for placement in the 2007 DownBeat Critics Poll.”

All About Jazz

"Johnson has released a challenging, sophisticated and successful album that raises the standard of modern jazz singing by at least one notch.  While other singers are rehashing the great American songbook, Johnson is putting it through the meat grinder and creating a whole new menu.” 

All About Jazz

"Jazz singer Ellen Johnson unfortunately is not the household word she should be.... duets with (bassist) Darek Oles will remind jazz vocal aficionados of the Sheila Jordan-Harvie Swartz collaborations."

"Jazz Critics Choice" Live Review: Los Angeles City Beat

"Two generations of innovative jazz vocalists came together when Sheila Jordan joined Ellen Johnson, Thursday at the Vic. Jordan was birthed in bebop, singing and scatting chord changes. Her style became a template for those who followed her by innovating the vocal and bass format with Charles Mingus trampling bar lines and improvising lyrics. Johnson is one of her many musical progeny, impressive in that, no matter how she stretches the form, she never neglects lyrical content. Her current “These Days” (Vocal Visions) signals a mature plateau for a special singer."

Jazz Improv

"As "These Days" proceeds the soul of Ellen Johnson emerges, and she leaves no doubt about the wide range of her talents.  In addition, the album reminds us of the fresh ideas, impressive technique and passion for the music that Ellen Johnson offers listeners.  "These Days" is a true delight. “

Tribuna Ris, Rio de Janeiro

"One of the top three jazz vocalists for 2006 along with Diana Krall and Dianne Reeves."

JazzTimes

"The blue-eyed blonde is gorgeous and so is her voice.  She has very firm intonation, unique jazz phrasing and can scat well."

LA Jazz Scene

“These Days ranks with her most rewarding projects and displays both her voice and her adventurous spirit at their best.”

JazzChicago.net

“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.”

Ejazz News

"This album will please those who can appreciate this unique format for the lady can definitely sing.”

Ejazz News

"I have to comment on the fine instrument Ellen possesses for the jazz idiom in that she sings a repertory of musical interpretation and isn't afraid to associate with adventurous, experimental and contemporary jazz musicians as with the likes of her wonderful bass soloist Darek Oles... All of this filtered through her wondrous voice."

Inside Connection

 “Ellen Johnson’s new release “These Days” is a complete breath of fresh air. Johnson who is not afraid to go where no vocalist has gone before presents a CD of taking chances.  A standing ovation for Ellen Johnson.  Thank you for showing the world of Jazz vocals that there is so much to explore.”

Jazz Review

Whether it is in poetry or in music, Johnson is drawn to art that provokes an emotional response. "I think there is music that comes from you being bare and exposing yourself," the singer says. She goes on to say that she suspects one of the reasons she finds herself in jazz is it tends to be less commercial than some other genres, and more often comes from a deep seated emotional base.

"The reason I am attracted to jazz at this point in my life is I like the idea of being in the moment and communicating to people spontaneously. I love improvisation because of that. It allows me to express something in the moment. I also love it (jazz) because it has the perfect balance of discipline and freedom, meaning that you have to know what you are doing. Once you know what you are doing, you have the freedom to take it somewhere else or to see it from another point of view and for some reason that really appeals to me," says Johnson.  CLICK LINK ABOVE TO READ ENTIRE INTERVIEW

Jazz Review

"All around, this is a memorable work by a remarkable vocalist"

Ellen’s singing career began in Chicago, where she exhibited a versatile mix of acoustic styles, ranging from pop and jazz to theatrical numbers.

It could be said that her vocal qualities resemble that of Ella Fitzgerald, Helen Reddy, Betty Carter among other soulful ladies. Her vocal effects are unique and not often heard in modern jazz. Her use of the bass as a main instrument as opposed to a back up is a rare touch in this age of overstated, synthesized music. The vocals and bass flow so well together and it has a natural aspect. The use of guitar, drums and percussion likewise fit as easily with the smooth tonation of bass and vocals.

At times, her selections offer a bluesy sound that sends you back to the dark, smoky underground jazz clubs of the 60’s, also shown by the use of poetry in songs such as "Little Messenger". Even the wording of the acknowledgments in the CD jacket show her strong poetic leaning.

Another notable quality is her use of Portuguese in the song "Esperanca Perdida". Not many can do it in this way. I like to think Mr. Jobim would probably give a thumbs up for her rendition of his classic tune.

All around, this is a memorable work by a remarkable vocalist.