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Aubrey Johnson & Randy Ingram: Play Favorites (Sunnyside)

Review of first recorded collaboration between vocalist Johnson and pianist Ingram

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Cover of Aubrey Johnson & Randy Ingram album Play Favorites
Cover of Aubrey Johnson & Randy Ingram album Play Favorites

Before her 2019 debut album Unraveled introduced her as a songwriter with a keen ear as an arranger and composer, Aubrey Johnson had already earned widespread notice with her bright, crystalline tone and creative versatility via her work supporting fellow vocal explorers such as Bobby McFerrin, Sara Serpa, and Sofia Rei and contributions to recordings by Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra, Joe Phillips’ Numinous Ensemble, and Andrew Rathbun Large Ensemble. Her follow-up, Play Favorites, offers a very different glimpse at an artist who’s still stretching her wings.

Partnering with Randy Ingram, a pianist with a gift for distilling harmonic essentials, the duo project features a ballad-centric program sifted from a wide array of sources, starting with a beguiling take on Billie Eilish/Finneas O’Connell’s “My Future” that accentuates the melody’s gentle contours so that it could have come from the pen of Sara Gazarek. Equally arresting on standards like “If I Should Lose You” and “Born to Be Blue,” Johnson is particularly striking on Joni Mitchell’s “Conversation,” navigating the upper register leaps with the liquid grace.

The brightest thread running through the project is their deep love of the Brazilian Songbook. Singing in Portuguese, Johnson renders Chico Buarque, Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes’ abject lament “Olha Maria” in luminous pastels. Ingram’s love of classical music shines through on their setting of Toninho Horto and Ronaldo Bastos’s “Bons Amigos.” Another standout is Johnson’s take on her uncle Lyle Mays’ “Quem é Você,” which was introduced as Pat Metheny Group instrumental “Close to Home” and recorded most memorably with Luiz Avellar’s lyric by Milton Nascimento. It’s another sublime bloom in a garden, lovingly tended since the mid-20th century, where jazz and Brazilian hybrids proliferate. Johnson’s harvest with Ingram is bountiful indeed.

Andrew Gilbert

Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelancer who has written about arts and culture since 1989 for numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, East Bay Express, Berkeleyside, and KQED’s California Report. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he experienced a series of mind-blowing epiphanies listening to jazz masters at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in the late 1980s, performances he remembers more vividly than the gigs he saw last month.