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Ellen Johnson: Form & Formless

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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.”

Originally Published