Unraveling the Jazz Genre with Aubrey Johnson
Updated: Jun 15, 2020
Aubrey Johnson's debut album, Unraveled, marks the jazz vocalist's arrival as a composer, arranger, and bandleader. Johnson is joined by a group of amazing musicians: pianist Chris Ziemba, drummer Jeremy Noller, and bassist Matt Aronoff, all of whom she met during a session. Adding striking orchestral textures are Tomoko Omura on violin, whom she met in 2009 while both in a folk band. Michael Sachs plays on bass clarinet and alto sax, he was a fan/friend of Aubrey's and frequented her shows. Brazilian jazz musician Vitor Gonçalves adds accordion work on two tracks.
From a young age, Johnson had been studying classical piano. At around 16 or 17 she saw Dianne Reeves for the first time. At the beginning of the concert, Reeves vocally improvised her introduction of the band and Johnson couldn't believe her ears. It was in this moment she realized what she wanted to do. When it was time to go to college she decided to go for Jazz Vocal. "I just really fell in love with it."
As an undergraduate student at Western Michigan University, Johnson was a member of Gold Company, the university’s world- renowned vocal jazz ensemble. It was while she was here she recorded and performed the original compositions of pianist Ron DiSalvio, featuring legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb. Her work is featured on the album “Essence of Green”, and “Songs For Jazz Legends." Aubrey would go on to win two DownBeat Collegiate Student Music Awards for “Best Jazz Vocalist” and “Jazz Vocalist, Outstanding Performance.”
While many students might stop their schooling after this Johnson decided to keep going. "I was on a journey that I felt was not over in terms of my education. I’m from the midwest, Wisconsin, and went to school in Michigan. I wanted to go out in the world, spread my wings, and meet more people. I’m so thankful I did that move to Boston. It opened up everything for me in life. It helped me understand the path I wanted to take.”
It was Fred Hersh, a mentor and friend, who told Johnson she should apply to New England Conservatory. It was the only school she applied to and she got in. These would be formative years for Johnson.
Here she had to transcribe Louis Armstrong. In doing so she learned how swing should feel, phrasing, and the development of ideas. Today while teaching her own classes, she encourages her students to study the earlier jazz. "The best way to study anything is to copy it. Even if you can't get close to the way they sound, you can get closer to your sound."
"I was on a journey that I felt was not over in terms of my education. I’m from the midwest, Wisconsin, and went to school in Michigan. I wanted to go out in the world, spread my wings, and meet more people. I’m so thankful I did that move to Boston. It opened up everything for me in life. It helped me understand the path I wanted to take.”
She also found studying Bebop helped with her improv style. "It helps your ears if you use the piano to have some tangible foundation to reference." Johnson has found the piano her companion in shaping her wordless vocal style. Wordless singing, was always part of her life. Her uncle, Lyle Mays, who co-founded the Pat Metheny group with Pat Metheny, featured a lot of wordless singing in the band's music. From the time she was born she was always listening to it. When she started playing piano as a young girl she started singing everything she played. She sang everything no matter what it was, not realizing it was unusual. It went hand in hand with her piano study and she continued with it no matter how complicated it got. "I just didn't see why singers were limited to only vocal music."
"I just didn't see why singers were limited to only vocal music."
Offering advice to young artists she notes, "Be as versatile as possible while still being true to yourself. You can’t really just do one thing anymore, which isn’t a bad thing."
She understands that when you are in school it's an isolated environment. Graduating gives you greater perspective but you lose that structure and small environment. "This may cause you to lose confidence, you're out there with everybody. You have to make a name and sound for yourself, it can be daunting."
It was this daunting feeling that made Johnson feel like maybe she shouldn't write music. What it took was Johnson finding her band. It was with them that everything gelled and she realized not only should she write but she should arrange.
Her new album is completely arranged by Johnson herself. "It's an art in and of itself. Making decisions on what every instrument is going to play versus just writing chords on a page. Realizing by changing the tempo and the groove you can change the whole sound of the song." Johnson notes she arranged the songs with her band in mind, this sometimes can bring up challenges when touring. Though rehearsals help.
"When everything today is fast paced and has to grab your attention right away, if something doesn’t catch you within a few seconds you might move on."
When asked if Johnson saw a difference between the fanbase in Europe, she said she thinks the audience level is equal. "The biggest difference is funding for music."
This is something we hear all the time. It is easier for musicians to get grants overseas to fund their album and record labels are more willing to spend the money on jazz albums. We had to ask why this was and why the music industry was changing.
Johnson pondered if it was due to our decrease in attention spans, and we might have to agree. "When everything today is fast paced and has to grab your attention right away, if something doesn’t catch you within a few seconds you might move on."
Aubrey doesn't see it as so bleak and thinks things will come back around. She feels jazz artists shouldn’t feel the need to conform. "Keep making the best music you can, art shouldn’t suffer because of the shift." She also finds musicians like, Lake Street Dive, using their jazz skills to make amazing new music and that everyone after reading this should go listen to Michael Mayo. Which leads us to the question we always ask at the end of interviews. What was her favorite jazz album of all time?
The answer was surprising, it wasn't a jazz album at all. " Blue by Joni Mitchell."
We were deeply impressed with Johnson's outlook and love of jazz. She is upbeat and like her singing style light and airy. She gives hope in a world that needs it more than ever. While most of her concerts have been canceled or rescheduled, Johnson is taking the time to do more streaming shows accompanied by her piano playing.
We look forward to the day we can see Johnson live but in the meantime you can stream Unraveled now!
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