by Ian Mann
September 08, 2021
Johnson’s writing is imaginative and multi-faceted, combining memorable themes with sophisticated rhythms and dynamics in a series of inventive compositions that embrace numerous twists and turns.
Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat
Emma Johnson – tenor saxophone, 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 Fold, 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. This led me to wonder if she’d ever been taught by saxophonist Julian Siegel, co-leader (with guitarist Phil Robson) of the mighty Partisans.
The Gravy Boat band name is a self deprecating reference to Johnson’s Northern origins and the group’s début album was financed by a successful Kickstarter campaign, plus funding from her winning of the Peter Whittingham Jazz Award, given by the Help Musicians organisation.
With regard to the album title Johnson admits to being a born worrier. The album tackles themes of stress and worry and the process of overcoming those things to find a sense of calm. It is a semi-conceptual affair charting the journey through the various stages of worry – “angst, acceptance, working through the issues and coming out the other end a changed and better human”. Johnson’s album notes thank the unnamed but “brilliant” women who have helped her through this process. Meanwhile the distinctive artwork, by OR8DESIGN is a visual depiction of calm and serenity.
However the visual imagery should not mislead the listener. The music to be found on “Worry Not” is far from bland and positively bristles with energy, invention and unabashed intent and. Her band, presumably other Leeds graduates, perform with great skill and serve her compositions well, there is clearly great empathy here.
Many of the pieces were written just after Johnson left college, many originating as vocal melodies which she would sing into her phone and then develop at the piano. “I don’t write on the saxophone at all”, she has admitted.
The opening piece, “Setting Sail” represents a voyage of discovery, undergoing a series of rhythmic and dynamic changes with Jones’s piano particularly prominent in the arrangement alongside the leader’s tenor. This is post-bop jazz that skilfully combines melodicism with angularity and which includes a probing, hard edged tenor solo from Johnson, a darting, edgy piano feature from Jones and some dynamic playing from the rhythm section of Milne and Hanley.
“Vertical Planes” features a complex, yet hummable, theme and some impressively tight ensemble playing, but it also embraces more lyrical passages featuring the sound of Johnson’s tenor and the first solo of the set from guitarist Fergus Vickers.
The lilting “Fully Fledged” combines jazz grooves with folkish melody and incorporates features for Jones on piano, Vickers on guitar and the excellent Hanley at the drums.
The title of “Interlude” is informed by Johnson’s love cinema and finds her adopting a lush, ballad sound on the tenor as she briefly duets with pianist Jones.
Milne’s unaccompanied bass introduces “Waterlogged”, a tune written in response to a house flood caused by a burst water pipe that occurred while Johnson was away from home collecting her Peter Whittingham Award! This event, plus the subsequent repair works proved to be stressful enough to act as some kind of inspiration for the album. Agitated and wistful by turns the piece combines a typically knotty theme with passages of lyricism, notably from pianist Jones, although his solo also contains an exploratory edginess, a quality enhanced by the urgency of Hanley’s drumming. Johnson then stretches out on tenor, skilfully developing her solo with fluency and conviction.
“Hold Me Tight”, also written in the aftermath of the flood, features Johnson’s writing at its most melodic as her tenor intertwines with Vickers’ guitar and Jones piano, gently propelled by a shuffling, E.S.T style drum groove.
The title track begins serenely, with a dialogue between Johnson’s tenor and Jones’ piano. The music takes a darker turn with the addition of the rest of the quintet, but an underlying thread of calm and serenity continues throughout, filtering into the fluent soloing of Johnson and the soaring guitar of Jones. This multi-faceted faceted composition then comes full circle, resolving itself with a further sax/piano duet, as Johnson finally makes some kind of peace with herself.
Introduced by a combination of guitar and bass the closing “Sun Stones” closes the album on an uplifting note, alternating shuffling bursts of energy with a yearning lyricism. Johnson’s tenor solo embraces both these elements, and she’s followed by Jones at the piano, who exhibits similar qualities. Both soloists are propelled by the busy drumming of Hanley, who eventually breaks into the foreground himself with a powerful drum feature.
In addition to the excellent musicianship “Worry Not” also benefits from a pin sharp production that allows each musician to be heard at their best. Praise is therefore due to the engineering team of George Atkins, Barkley McKay, Tom Orrell and Tim Thomas.
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. It’s a musical world that draws in the listener, and the standard of the playing is exceptional throughout, with Johnson more than justifying the Coltrane comparisons that have come her way. That said this is very contemporary and original music, drawing on the traditions of the past but never slavishly copying it. Johnson’s music is not always easy to describe, but it is a joy to listen to.
I’m now looking forward to seeing Johnson perform this music in person when she visits one of my regular haunts, Kidderminster Jazz Club, on Thursday 2nd December 2021.
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