by Ian Mann
November 15, 2023
The playing from all five musicians in this hand picked ensemble is exceptional throughout. Collectively they create a distinctive ensemble sound, with Johnson’s tenor sax at the heart of the music.
Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat
Emma Johnson – tenor saxophone, composer, Fergus Vickers – electric guitar, Richard Jones – piano, Angus Milne – double bass, Steve Hanley – drums
Born in Accrington, Lancashire, the same town as Yes vocalist Jon Anderson, Emma Johnson is a saxophonist and composer who studied at Leeds College of Music, now renamed Leeds Conservatoire. She played clarinet in the school orchestra before switching to saxophone and moving on to Leeds.
Johnson grew up in a music loving family and her early influences included rock and pop artists and particularly singer-songwriters such as James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Norah Jones. She cites Jones’ début album as a particular touchstone, as it also helped to spark her interest in jazz.
Away from her main Gravy Boat project Johnson has collaborated with vocalist Nishla Smith and runs her own ‘horn section for hire’ which has resulted in work with such artists as Folds, Gregory Porter, Clare Teal, Olly Murs, Easy Life, Los Campesinos, Happy Daggers and Neon Dolls.
Song structures inform Johnson’s writing, which is highly melodic, as do cinema scores and more obvious jazz influences, notably hard bop and particularly the music of bands deploying a tenor sax / guitar combination.
The Gravy Boat band name is a self deprecating reference to Johnson’s Northern origins and the group’s début album “Worry Not” was financed by a successful Kickstarter campaign, plus funding from her winning of the Peter Whittingham Jazz Award, given by the Help Musicians organisation.
Released in 2021 “Worry Not” represented an exceptional debut and demonstrated Johnson’s maturity both as an instrumentalist and as a composer. My very favourable review of the album, from which much of the above biographical detail has been sourced, can be found here;
The release of the “Worry Not” album was supported by a national tour and I was able to enjoy a live appearance by the Gravy Boat quintet at Kidderminster Jazz Club in December 2021. It was good to meet Emma in person and my review of the Kidderminster live performance can be found here;
Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat - Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat, Kidderminster Jazz Club, The Corn Exchange Room, Kidderminster Town Hall, 02/12/2021. | Review | The Jazz Mann
The Kidderminster show focussed on the “Worry Not” material but the prolific Johnson has since composed the material that constitutes “Northern Flame”. This semi-conceptual album is the result of a commission for the 2022 Lancaster Jazz Festival and features seven compositions that Johnson describes as being “inspired by stories of the strength and resilience of Northern (specifically Lancashire) women past and present”
Comprised of seven pieces the work includes compositions dedicated to the female lighthouse keeper Janet Raby and to local hospice founder Sister Aine Cox MBE. As befits the album title a more general theme of ‘light’ informs the work as a whole, as Johnson explains;.
“The theme of light ties together all the tracks on the album, from Janet Raby’s lighthouse beam shining in the darkness, to the more figurative idea of the light shared between Sister Aine Cox MBE and hospice patient Anne Charlesworth when all hope was lost, to the light you find left on for you when coming home late. In the current dark times, I think we all need a little more light.”
“I’m really happy with the process and feeling of the album as a whole. It was an incredible experience to be commissioned for the first time and have time to research and write from different stories and perspectives, and to go on from there to turn those songs into a full length album has been a new and invigorating way of working for me, and I feel like that comes across.”
Following its successful performance at Lancaster Jazz Festival the music of “Northern Flame” was recorded at Giant Wafer Studio with James Hamilton producing. The band line up remains unchanged from the “Worry Not” recording, and incidentally it was the full album personnel that played that Kidderminster show a couple of years back.
The album commences with “Force Of Light”,inspired by the story of Janet Raby, who was employed as a lighthouse keeper by the Lancaster Port Commission in the early years of the 20th century, sharing the work with her brother Dick. They were the third and last generation of the Raby family to maintain the Lune lights and also supplemented their income by fishing in Morecambe Bay.
The composition begins in atmospheric fashion with Jones’ sparse piano chording augmented by the sounds of bowed bass, guitar atmospherics and cymbal scrapes and shimmers. When Johnson’s tenor sax eventually arrives it’s like a lighthouse beam piercing the darkness. A more forceful theme is subsequently developed, with the leader’s tenor lighting the way. Strong melodies are a hallmark of Johnson’s writing and her powerful theme is underpinned by rock influenced rhythms. However in a composition that mirrors the moods of the sea there are also more contemplative moments, with one such reflective episode bringing Milne’s double bass to the fore as he solos above the sounds of still sparse piano and Hanley’s sensitive and finely nuanced drum commentary. The momentum then gradually increases via Johnson’s thoughtful, but increasingly impassioned sax solo. All in all an excellent start to an album that has been described as “cinematic and free flowing”. These qualities are certainly much in evidence here.
As befits an album that is essentially a suite the music segues quickly into the next track, “Home”. Again Jones ushers things at the piano before an attractive, folk like melodic theme emerges, stated by Johnson tenor before Vickers takes over, gently soaring on guitar. Johnson then returns on tenor, dovetailing with Vickers, their intertwining melody lines eventually joined by the third instrumental voice of Jones at the piano. Eventually Johnson’s tenor resumes the lead for the closing theme statement. Johnson has also spoken of the band making more use of dynamics and instrumental interplay on this album, and these first two tracks offer ample evidence of this.
“Sister” is dedicated to Sister Aine Cox MBE (1927-1998), founder of St. John’s Hospice in Lancaster. Introduced by an unaccompanied tenor sax melody, subsequently doubled by guitar and piano, the piece is largely celebratory in feel and includes powerful solos from Johnson and Vickers. But there’s a balancing sense of melancholy too as the band again make effective use of dynamic and emotional contrasts. The performance also includes something of a drum feature for the excellent Steve Hanley.
I assume that “Now I Can Tell” is the piece that Johnson dedicates to hospice patient Anne Charlesworth. It’s a genuine ballad with suitably tender tenor sax playing from Johnson and a lyrical solo from Vickers on guitar. As the piece progresses it gains something of an anthemic quality, with both Milne and Hanley playing important roles in the arrangement. Hanley delivers another excellent performance behind the kit.
“Northern Flame Intro” is a two and a half minute passage of lyrical solo piano from Jones that leads into the title track.
“Northern Flame” itself is a true celebration, an upbeat tune led by Johnson’s soaring tenor sax. The leader digs in to deliver a powerful solo, this followed by Vickers’ similarly stratospheric guitar soloing. The sequence promises to end as it began with a passage of solo piano from Jones, but there’s an unexpected reprise of the exhilarating main theme, with sax and guitar dovetailing above the propulsive rhythms laid down by the rest of the group.
As its title might suggest the closing “Embers” is altogether more gentle and atmospheric, a ballad that represents the perfect ‘chill out’ or ‘wind down’ track after the ecstatic “Northern Flame”, and a piece probably deployed as an encore at the quintet’s gigs. The warm sound of Johnson’s tenor combines with Jones’ economic piano chording and Vickers’ guitar atmospherics. Milne and Hanley provide suitably sympathetic rhythmic support, with Hanley’s delicate cymbal work a particularly notable element in the arrangement. Once again the piece acquires something of an anthemic quality as it progresses, with Johnson’s tenor leading the way.
“Northern Flame” builds on the promise of “Worry Not” and is another impressive piece of work that confirms Johnson’s status as a skilled and intelligent composer, bandleader and instrumentalist.
I summarised “Worry Not” as follows;
“Johnson’s writing is imaginative and multi-faceted, combining memorable melodic themes with sophisticated rhythms and dynamics in a series of inventive compositions that embrace numerous twists and turns, but without ever descending into self indulgence”.
These virtues apply to “Northern Flame” too, where, if anything, the rapport between the musicians is even deeper. The playing from all five musicians in this hand picked ensemble is exceptional throughout and collectively they create a distinctive ensemble sound, with Johnson’s tenor at the heart of the music. The way in which she blends the three frontline instruments of sax, guitar and piano is genuinely impressive and the music is rich in terms of colour and texture. Bassist Milne and drummer Handley respond brilliantly to the nuances of Johnson’s writing, with Handley in particular adding further welcome colour and detail to the music. Gravy Boat make a great team, but nevertheless there are many fine individual moments too.
If there’s a quibble it’s that the album is rather short, but as it represents a single commissioned work that’s perfectly understandable. It’s just that I love Gravy Boat’s sound and would have liked to have heard more of it.
Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat is currently on tour with remaining dates as follows;
The Cathedral Hotel
Jazz At The Lescar
Howard Assembly Room
Davenham Player’s Theatre
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“Northern Flame” is available via Emma Johnson’s website https://www.johnsonmusic.co.uk/
and Bandcamp page https://emmajohnsonsgravyboat.bandcamp.com/