June 2006

Molly Johnson & Quartet
at the Toronto Jazz Festival
June 23, 2006Main StageToronto
At Home With Molly Johnson
by Dave Barnes with photo by Roger Humbert
A much-loved Molly Johnson headlined the first Main Stage concert at the Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival's 20th anniversary to fond and sustained applause.

It's no secret that they adore Molly Johnson in France. No wonder. Hers is a unique voice that triggers half-forgotten memories of singers loved and lost to us.

Molly Johnson

Do we need to worry that Molly will be seduced by France? Despite its charms, it seems that Molly has had the classic Canadian travel experience. Distance brings out our sense of identity and pride of place and we return to treasure everything that seemed familiar.

Well, perhaps not everything. Recording companies can still be relied on to take what can seem inordinate time to do their business. If she and her talented quintet can lay down 14 tracks in 14 days for the new CD, where is the result? It's coming. Meanwhile we had a preview of ten of the new tunes. This is mostly new material with even more of the crossover appeal of Another Day, her well-received album of 2002.

Molly may claim to be unfamiliar with the current-day annoyances of email and such but she clearly has an intuitive grasp of the modern habit of genre-mixing that lives on mp3 players. The song writing is more mature, endowed with less pop elements and trusting more to her natural affinity with the blues. But there is a rich blend at work here for which blues is just the starting point.

"If you Know Love" captures Molly in classic charm, evoking an earlier era. This is a new-old tune, written by her long-standing writer, Steve MacKinnon, designed it seems to sound from an earlier age but featured in a current movie.

Her quintet plus guest artists provide a rich setting. Rob Piltch's superbly tasty guitar licks were a great addition to Molly's normal quartet. While long-term colleague Mark McLean has taken his drumming talents to New York, he returned for the recording and this festival. There are many who appreciate his subtle and understated accompaniments.

An impressively competent Colleen Allen had a daunting array of reeds for doubling duty along with vocal harmonies and even percussion at the ready. Let us single out her soprano sax solo that improved on even the closely studied break that graced the crossover radio-play hit "My Oh My". That and some perfectly fitted clarinet accompaniments behind classic blues and some klezmer-hinted material.

Andrew Craig is a gifted pianist, this made especially evident in some wailing and deeply punctuated blues offered in encore to a generous set. However, his deftly crafted organ solo and tight interplay with Mark's drums on "Sticks and Stones" has to count as one of several musical highlights of the set. Mike Downes tight timing and versatility on acoustic bass added immensely to the crisp sound. Craig and Downes share some of the writing credits and clearly enjoy their close collaboration with Molly.

Craig Ross, known for his work with Lenny Kravitz, has co-writing credits for some of the new material. He joined for the opening two tunes and used this to feature some finely-turned electric blues guitar riffs.

Bursts of applause met Guido Basso as he joined the band in mid-set for a few numbers. Incomparable phrasing and tone from his flugelhorn is a trademark. He didn't disappoint and Gershwin's "But Not For Me" was a sumptuous pairing of vocal and vocal-like timbres, illuminating how richly detailed Molly's Johnson's voice can be.

Steve MacKinnon's "Let's Waste Some Time" followed, featuring some lovely flugelhorn and flute parts from Guido and Colleen as well as some tasty drum work by Mark.

Molly may have hinted that rehearsals were few for the new tunes but there was little evidence of this. Molly Johnson and her band seemed quite at home in their new creations.

In fact, she is very close to home and home is very close to her.

Touch Down In Toronto
by Paul J. Youngman with photo by Roger Humbert
Molly Johnson was introduced and arrived in style; she looked very fit, fashion conscious and as beautiful as ever. Johnson was joined on stage by her regular quartet of Colleen Allen on soprano, alto, tenor saxophone, clarinet and flute (as Johnson said, “playing everything”), Andrew Craig on piano and keyboards, Mike Downes on acoustic bass and Mark Mclean on drums and percussion. There were special guest artists as well, guitarists Greg Ross and Rob Piltch and flugelhorn and trumpet-player Guido Basso.

Molly Johnson is an enchantress; she can work an audience in the fashion of the greats, like Ella, Pearl, Abby, Dinah and Billy. At times, her brash attitude can even lend itself to the defiant style of Nina Simone. Molly Johnson seduces her fans, loving them slowly, teasingly and with ultimate pleasure, making sure to leave them wanting more, a highly coveted skill that all the great lovers possess.

Johnson sings in a very relaxed fashion, she has a smoky, distinct voice that is somewhere in between the raw adrenalin pumping power of blues rock legend Janis Joplin and the instrumental tone of a young Billy Holiday. There were moments during the concert where she reached down into some reserve and boosted the energy level to one that I have never witnessed from her before. I have seen Johnson perform on numerous occasions, this was a special night. Her trading off of lines with horn player extraordinaire Guido Basso during “Fool To Fall In Love” was exhilarating. Basso has a full rich tone that matches Johnson’s vocal range perfectly.

Molly Johnson

Johnson and her band performed 10 songs from the new CD, Let’s Waste Some Time, due out soon on the Verve/ Universal label. The first two songs that the band played were co-composed with Greg Ross, guitarist with the Lenny Kravitz band. They were well-written numbers, “Messing Around” and “Here With You.” The sound mix took the first three numbers to get it together, harmonies were not working for me and instrument levels were being adjusted on the fly. A sound check during the 15-minute break might be an idea. Ross departed after these first two songs and Guido Basso arrived to a huge round of applause. Other songs from the new CD were “If You Know Love”, “Once Upon A Time,” “Tonight,” and “Tangerine,” which has a hip Caribbean flavour to it and nice percussion by Mclean.

Mark Mclean is one of the most skilled drummers at supporting a vocalist. His superb style may be heard backing vocalist Peter Cincotti and Andy Bey. He can play brushes to swing or compliment to tasteful effect the sultry mood that Johnson so wonderfully exudes. He is always one step ahead when improvisation is called for, his drumming is sharp, sensitive and supportive of where other players are going as so wonderfully displayed on the award winning Red Dragonfly CD by Jane Bunnett, released in 2004 on Blue Note Records.

Two outstanding tunes with hit written all over them, “My Oh My” and “Diamond In My Hand” from the self-titled Molly Johnson CD released in 2001 by Marquis Records were performed to the delight of the audience. Rob Piltch was a guest artist on the first CD and his playing at this evening’s performance was splendid. Piltch is a minimalist, in a two bar solo he can say more than some guitarists do in a lifetime. He is a jazz guitar player whose tonal clarity is mesmerizing, with chord structure that is simply brilliant.

On the song “Sticks and Stones”, Basso on trumpet and Allen on tenor sax played some magnificent solos. Andrew Craig played an organ solo that was really swinging. Craig would switch between electronic keyboard and piano throughout the show. This is a tight rhythm section with Mike Downes firmly in control. Downes is the backbone that keeps it all together and lays the foundation that the other players can perform upon.

The Molly Johnson big band played an exciting set that was close to two hours long with one rip-roaring encore number. The finale was a song I did not recognize; it may have been one of the new songs. The sound of it was incredible, like a big band blowing to win the battle.

I see great things for Molly Johnson and the beneficiaries will be her loving and loved fans.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Dave Barnes
• • • • • •
Roger Humbert
• •
Paul J. Youngman
The Live Music Report

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