Review by Andrew Freund
Kelley Johnson Quartet
Kitano, New York
October 15, 2014
Early in her first set, Kelley Johnson, joined by a freshly minted band, the lyrical, responsive pianist Anthony Wonsey, the powerfully rich bassist Matt Clohesy and the resourceful drummer Jon Wikan, gave us Stephen Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle.” Kelley often turns to theater songs, for their narrative and emotional clarity and sturdy musical structures, and here was a plaintive statement of modern life’s opportunities and inhibitions, transformed into musical autobiography. Johnson explored dualities, from nimble half-scat to notes in her very lowest register, seemingly implying, as the song does, that this is today’s human condition, so many of us reaching widely in multiple directions, while restraining ourselves in the poignancy of self-awareness.
We seek transcendence. Epiphanies from our wisest fellow travelers. A few sets from Kelley Johnson reliably supply just that, go-for-it unguarded commitment to each song, matched by trademark blues and irrepressible swing. Kelley is conversational, spicy, silly with yearning; she chews on notes as might a great storyteller. We hear echoes of Carmen McRae, now leveling with listeners, soon flying light and free – and also Abbey Lincoln, that hard-won, hip, liberal wisdom. Kelley is a guide, and in her joys and cautions, she is a delight.
Here was “Home,” Johnson’s deepest masterpiece, her setting of Jim Knapp’s melody (one of her strengths, lending great jazz tunes the words they were meant to have), a time-defying existential journeying to yes: “back home.” Anthony Wonsey’s bluesy intro cast the song in a new mood, and Kelley was there, discovering fresh truths, utterly “in the moment.” “Moment to Moment,” a reflectively passionate Mancini/Mercer love song, took the band into Coltrane territory, in an ever-expanding gorgeous churn. Richard Rodgers’ “Sweetest Sounds” was recast in slow swing, from declaration to rumination.
Johnson honored one of her musical progenitors, the insinuating Horace Silver, with her take on “Nica’s Dream,” here rendered as a misterioso tango. Abbey Lincoln’s “Should’ve Been,” another life journey in miniature, gave each player a feature, Clohesy taking the tune into time with an establishing down-low solo, Wikan addressing his drum kit with hands only, Wonsey beautifully expansive. Kelley’s drama emerged slowly, but soon enough her singing turned deeply ardent, her band-of-an-evening fully engaged along with her, blowing hard.
I have been listening to Kelley Johnson for many years. I’ve seen her attain musical maturity, this developed sense of proportion from an artist so dedicated to improvisatory truths. Yet she still reminds us that her stock in trade is the ecstasy of musical discovery. She is forever on a path, and some of us are lucky to be able to tap into her new glories and discoveries as they unfurl over years.