Her lithe velvety voice mixes with a feisty delivery, tricky colorful arrangements and spirited players like Geoffrey Keezer, Ingrid Jensen, John Hansen, and Brian Lynch. The result is music that is personal and moving. Johnson grew up all over the place, but mostly she grew up in Ironwood, Michigan. Surrounded by the sounds of music, her mother was a painter who filled the studio with the music of the 60s, 70s, R&B, country, jazz and especially the blues. When her mother was severely injured in a tragic auto accident, her family took in boarders to make ends meet.
Among their guests were singers, songwriters, actors, and comedians who introduced her to more music. Around the time that she and her mother and sister moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she began to absorb the music of Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. “Jazz had become a beacon for me”, she says. She began hanging out at Milwaukee’s Jazz Gallery learning the vernacular from Brian Lynch and David Hazeltine while studying Betty Carter five nights in a row on her annual visit to town.
Her education grew to be both formal (magna cum laude from the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music) and informal (gigging in Milwaukee jazz clubs). This twofold education and her subsequent career experience produced a schooled musician who was growing into a jazz singer. When Seattle became home in the late 80s, Johnson made a key connection with jazz vocal eminence Mark Murphy at a workshop he was doing. His mentoring both helped her develop her talent and facilitated getting the word out that an impressive new vocalist was on the scene.
“Good news for jazz vocal fans!” notified Murphy. “Listen to her sureness of pitch, imaginative song selection and her ability to lyricize to a Joe Henderson theme. Many treats here, my friends. In a world of noise, yahoo, and recorded B.S., the first thing you hear here is none of that.
It’s because this girl knows she is a jazz singer and doesn’t have to do anything else!” Seattle welcomed Johnson. She had the privilege of working with and being encouraged by the greats Buddy Catlett and Clarence Acox until she met and forged a lasting musical relationship with pianist John Hansen. Kelley Johnson and the John Hansen trio with bassist Paul Gabrielson and drummer Jon Wikan gave her the modern roots jazz piano trio sound with a “horn” up front, much like Miles’ early rhythm sections. Having found the sound and the camaraderie she was looking for, her artistry bloomed, as did her arranging and lyric-writing.
Her first album featured both Hansen and Fred Hersch. Hersch, perhaps the preeminent vocal accompanist extant, produced her first album, Make Someone Happy (1998), which also featured Larry Grenadier, Steve Wilson and Lewis Nash. Music is the Magic was recorded in Brooklyn in 2002. Produced by the brilliant trumpeter, Brian Lynch, this recording again featured some of Johnson's favorite musicians Lynch, Hansen, Wilson, Geoffrey Keezer, Essiet Essiet and Jon Wikan.
Johnson’s work always showcases her ability to shine as a storyteller in the company of exceptional musicians while showcasing their work as well. In 2004, Johnson won the International Jazzconnect Jazz Vocal Competition. The first place prize was a CD recording, Live at Birdland, to be taped in one special night at the historic New York City jazz club. The album’s success is again, as much the quintet’s ensemble playing as its success in featuring Johnson, Ingrid Jensen, John Hansen, Ugonna Okegwo and Jon Wikan.
As a performer and a teacher, Kelley Johnson has lived the adage that music is the universal language. She won the opportunity to tour Japan in 2005 for the Kobe-Seattle Sister City Association where she and the Japanese audiences had a foot-stomping good time. One highlight was having 400 people clapping in perfect time to her up-tempo version of “Tea For Two” in Nagoya on a memorable summer night! For the U.S. State Department in 2004, she and her now husband, pianist John Hansen, bassist Nathan Peck, and drummer Jon Wikan took a quartet to Central Asia, playing 40 concerts in six weeks in seven former Soviet countries, under the auspices of the State Department's Jazz Ambassadors program.
An email from an appreciative fan from Kyrgyzstan exemplifies the power of musical communication: "I felt your spirit through the meanings of your songs, the spirit of a revolutionary person who is for a true and fair world of people." As Wynton Marsalis says, “Swing is a natural agent of diplomacy”. Apparently he felt that Johnson and her trio were delivering the goods as his panel of Lincoln Center judges picked them for the 2007 American Music Abroad tour. Johnson is adjunct professor at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle and Musicworks Northwest in Bellevue. In the summers, she conducts and co-arranges the Seattle Metropolitan Urban League’s Kid’s Jazz Chorus.
She and John Hansen live in Madison Valley in Seattle where they provide a home for Nana, the cutest kitty on earth. Official website: http://www.kelleyjohnson.com Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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