Jennifer A. Johnson – Midnight Blue (2012)

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There are a lot of ways to fail at a jazz vocal album, in particular with the glut of such projects flooding the marketplace these days. The first, though, is to lack nerve. Credit Jennifer A. Johnson for sidestepping such concerns on Midnight Blue, an album that proves to be both inviting and offbeat.

She opens Midnight Blue in a soulful gait, as the title track sets a twilight mood. Pianist Dave Braham adds the lightest pianistic flourishes, while drummer Steve Johns shows himself to be a master of understatement on the brushes. This lithe, whispery underpinning provides a panoramic vista for Johnson’s smoky vocal stylings here. She sings with a sly affection, sounding by turns inviting and quietly resolute – like June Christy in a particularly confessional moment.

Something so hushed and affectionate might have conveyed the idea that Johnson is going to play it safe here. Instead, she sings with a horn-like sweep on tracks like “Silver Night,” pulling every ounce of emotion from the thrillingly elongated words. Meanwhile, Johnson stays just ahead of Johns’ musings on “Strawberry Moon,” and then allows herself an inviting sigh or two to let him catch up – even as trumpeter Matt Mancuso adds a lonely trumpet, completing to the track’s delicate sense of intimacy.

Then there’s “To the Stars,” which finds Johnson settling into a sassy groove. Her voice, so dusky and interesting before, is now a soaring, Natalie Merchant-style chirp. Johns and bassist Gregory M. Jones add a mysterious bossa nova-style rhythm to “Strangers Passing through the Night,” opening the door for another series of confidential verses from Johnson. She’s in complete command, it seems, of her craft.

But then, on the otherwise pleasant “Your Smile,” Johnson’s sense of adventure gets the best of her. Though she sings the versions with a swinging confidence, she attempts a series of swooning vocal signatures in the chorus – and the song comes slightly unhinged. Instead of conveying a sense of swooning passion, “Your Smile” ends up sounding uncomfortably woozy.

Still, Johnson is to be applauded for continuing to think out of the box. She certainly has the chops, and the layered resume, to warrant trying such things. After all, she’s performed across genres reaching from classical to cabaret and from Celtic to Broadway. The risk with experimentation, though, is always failure. That’s what makes risk-taking such a fizzy experience – and the odd misstep so ultimately forgivable.

There are musical surprises to be found on Midnight Blue, as well: “Christmas on a Star” finds Braham switching to organ, giving the expected glittery Yuletide sentiment a brilliant blues-informed darkness. On “Under the Moon,” Jones draws a bow across his bass, even as Johns begins playing a locomotive figure on the cymbal – giving the track this interesting tension.

That’s the last of eight straight originals from Johnson, a burst of creativity that again steers Midnight Blue away from the gauzy conventions which sink so many projects from jazz vocalists these days.

Not that the three cover tunes are throwaways. Johnson returns to an undulating South American polyrhythm – and Jones to the bow – for an intriguingly enigmatic take on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Black Orpheus.” Johnson sings like a warm breeze on an inky night, perfectly encapsulating the expectant romantic’s murmured wish amidst the pomp and circumstance of Carnival.

On Astrud Gilberto’s “Gentle Rain,” Johnson again allows her vocal to ebb and to flow, but modulates it in a way that is far less jarring than “Your Smile.” Here, her creative impulse is dead on.

Finally, there’s Dindi – another Jobim classic. Johnson, to great effect, speeds the song up a half step from the contemplative reverie that’s standard for most interpretations. The result is a track that sounds less like a dreamy recollection than a breathy aside, like something said right into a lover’s ear. It’s one last, memorable moment of invention on an album that’s simply filled with them.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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