"I don’t paint, so I guess in my music I try to paint (using) words and sounds. People have made mention that with this CD (These Days) they hear all these subtleties and nuances. I do that on purpose because I am not just trying to sing a song, I am trying to add colors to it with my voice," says Ellen Johnson from her home on the west coast.
The well spoken Johnson continues to talk about her passion for music, "If you walk out in nature and look at beautiful scenery, it’s not always the same and there are different emotions, pictures and colors that evoke in different moments. I think that is what jazz does."
From her home near a marina and wildlife sanctuary, the photos of which can be found on her CD cover, Johnson certainly has a daily inspiration that infuses her music.
"It (These Days) starts out with very bright and deep colors, and then it goes into pastels. All of these songs came out of my experiences. I hadn’t put out a CD in seven or eight years. I’ve had a lot of experiences since then and they haven’t all been good (she says laughing). I have also had a lot of wonderful experiences. I think that is what the colors (represent) for me, from the harshness of the colors to the softness of the colors," Johnson says.
One of those major losses was Mac, her English Sheepdog/Setter cross, who had been with her for seventeen years. "He was my best friend and he died a couple of years ago. He went through a lot of things with me in my life. I know some people don’t understand that animals sometimes get you through hard times. They love you unconditionally and are there for you. They add something to you and give you a connection to another part of life. I loved him so much and I still miss him terribly," she says.
Life experiences have added to the depth and sometimes the shadows in Johnson’s music. "In my life the music has always been the one thing that has pulled me through situations. (Sometimes it is) just singing and being able to release some of that (emotion). It helps you to sing in a deeper way. There are songs that I sing (and she laughs) that now I have a real understanding of what those words are all about! I have a much closer relationship to the music," she says.
Johnson observes, "I think there are things that we go through that we can in another medium. It can be something that is very healing and also gives back. I think your writing becomes deeper and richer. Your performance becomes deeper and richer."
Although Johnson’s taste for music is eclectic and she proclaims a fondness for classical, pop, folk and musical theater, jazz seems to be where she has found her home at the moment. The common thread for Johnson is the music must be well written, have depth and come from the heart.
"I really like interesting lyrics that say something thoughtful and have depth to them. (I like lyrics that) make you think for a minute...hmmm. That’s what poetry is, images that evoke emotions," she says. It was these elements that early in her career drew her to Joni Mitchell’s music and later in life has created an affinity for the works of 20th century poet Maya Angelou.
Whether it is in poetry or in music, Johnson is drawn to art that provokes an emotional response. "I think there is music that comes from you being bare and exposing yourself," the singer says. She goes on to say that she suspects one of the reasons she finds herself in jazz is it tends to be less commercial than some other genres, and more often comes from a deep seated emotional base.
"The reason I am attracted to jazz at this point in my life is I like the idea of being in the moment and communicating to people spontaneously. I love improvisation because of that. It allows me to express something in the moment. I also love it (jazz) because it has the perfect balance of discipline and freedom, meaning that you have to know what you are doing. Once you know what you are doing, you have the freedom to take it somewhere else or to see it from another point of view and for some reason that really appeals to me," says Johnson.
She continues, "There is no hook (in jazz). You can go in different directions. The melodies are sophisticated and when I say sophisticated I mean they can go in more places than say pop music or folk music."
Johnson finds the attraction to jazz "is never ending and I can always find a new way of looking at a song."
Once again Johnson’s desire to discover music that touches her and that she can in turn use to touch the lives of others contributed to the song selection for These Days. "On my CD I don’t do just standard and I don’t want to only do standards I love them, but I want to find songs that can express more of who I am and can bring these different colors and sounds," she says.
Johnson has combined the old and the new to great effect with this most recent release. She provides soulful Portuguese vocalize on "Esperanca Perdida", adds satirical lyrics to Charles Mingus’ "Noddin’ Ya Head Blues" (a look at white collar crime) and takes a playful approach to "No Moon At All."
Darek Oles' bass work comps the singer nicely and delivers the evocative quality to the music that Johnson continually strives for. "I really like musicians who bring out emotions because it is like they are speaking to me through their instrument," she says.
Although Larry Koonse appears on guitar, Roy McCurdy on drums and Ana Gazzola provides percussion, it is the chemistry of Oles and Johnson that makes These Days work so well. "I like the intimacy and the interaction between just the two instruments. I like the relationship between the voice and the bass because in reality they are both single line instruments although we do know the bass can play some chords," she says.
Johnson finds both the contrast and dynamic between her high soprano voice and the bass to be exhilarating. "It has been a challenge for me to work within my lower range. The higher (range) is a piece of cake for me. In fact on my past CDs I have really gone to the extremes of my high end. I just felt I wanted to explore the other end (of my range) a little bit more. I wanted this (These Days) to be beautiful and simple," she says.
"Darek is such a lyrical bass player and as I said in my liner notes, I felt as if he was singing with me. He has this beautiful sense of a lyric line. He has gorgeous warmth in his bass sound. Darek is very creative and spontaneous which is what I needed," she says.
Johnson feels that Oles’ ability to think outside the box from what a bass player might traditionally play, contributed to the success of These Days. She says, "I didn’t want somebody who would just do walking bass lines behind me. I wanted somebody who could add personality and who would express himself whether it was a lyrical nature, rhythmic nature or whatever it was. He wasn’t somebody I had to encourage to do that, he just has it. It was a lot of fun. We just kind of clicked together. It was a magical experience for both of us."
The songs on These Days have many textures and like a child blowing bubbles through a ring, you find each new one is unique, fascinating and beautiful.
Although Johnson is renowned for her work as a teacher and composer she has a reminder for us, "Everybody is so concerned about technique, but let’s not forget that it is the heart and soul of the music that we want to get to. The people who are really astounding sing from their souls."