There are many vocalists with lovely voices who mine the Great American Songbook for material; however, very few have the depth and jazz chops of KELLEY JOHNSON. A vocalist and arranger, Johnson doesn't rehash familiar standards. She understands the music from the inside out, and with her spot-on phrasing and silky, rich timbre, she is certainly one of the finest purveyors of sophisticated lyrics on the scene today. Johnson's newest album, SOMETHING GOOD, is a program of 10 mostly familiar songs that she re-imagines with fresh and personal interpretations. Her voice is warm and sexy with an effortless sense of swing that never overwhelms the material with faux hipness. There is an ease to her delivery that makes it sound as effortless as breathing.
SOMETHING GOOD is Johnson's fifth CD. Her previous projects include Home (2011), Live at Birdland (2004), which she taped in one special night at the historic New York City club, Music is the Magic (2003), which earned her First Place in the International JazzConnect Vocal Competition, and Make Someone Happy (1998), her debut CD that she recorded with renowned pianist Fred Hersch. Each of her recordings have garnered critical acclaim. The Seattle Weekly said, "With a strong, engaging voice that's winsome without being sweet, Johnson is the kind of singer you can lose yourself in for an evening."
Johnson grew up in the Midwest, but has lived in Seattle for many years, where she performs regularly in and around the city. She participated on lengthy tours abroad in 2004 and 2008 for the U.S. State Department's Jazz Ambassadors program. Begun in 1956, the program today is sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The group performed in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Japan, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Russia, Suriname, and Central America. After one tour, Johnson received an email from an appreciative fan from Kyrgyzstan that read, "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."
Indeed, Johnson chose the songs on SOMETHING GOOD not just because they're great songs, but because they resonate with her on a deeper level. "These songs are about being an artist, being a partner, and being a daughter," says Johnson. "Like most people, I'm trying to maintain meaningful relationships and continue pursuing love and music with all the glory and humility that we need to keep our balance in an ever-changing world. Whether a song is about art or love or spiritual pursuit, it's really all the same path to acceptance."
Johnson's philosophical outlook grew from a tumultuous and very loving upbringing, surrounded by art and music. Her mother was a visual artist who bought and fixed up houses to subsidize her career. Home for Johnson was a transient thing. Her mother filled her art studio with the music of the 60s and 70s, and Johnson grew up listening to R&B, country, jazz, and especially the blues. When her mother was severely injured in an auto accident, her family took in boarders to make ends meet. Among their guests were singers, songwriters, actors, and comedians. The house was full of art and music and interesting, creative people. By the time the family moved to Milwaukee, Johnson was in love with jazz. She listened to Billie, Miles, Keith Jarrett and Betty Carter records and hung out in the city's clubs, listening to local jazz musicians. She went on to pursue her own musical aspirations at The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, from which she graduated Magna Cum Laude. She has also served as an
assistant professor at Cornish College of the Arts and Director of the Seattle Metropolitan Urban League's Children's Jazz Chorus, among countless other musical ventures.
The musicianship on SOMETHING GOOD is top-notch and features some of the best musicians from the Pacific Northwest, including her husband, pianist JOHN HANSEN. Johnson and Hansen have been married and performing together for over 20 years. Hansen is one of the most in-demand jazz pianists and finest jazz soloists in the Northwest. Renowned jazz host Jim Wilke said of Hansen, "Highly talented, unassuming, and offering his best effort in every musical situation, John Hansen is a versatile sideman, accompanist and soloist who's a valued part of several top recording and performing jazz groups."
Also joining Johnson are bass player MICHAEL GLYNN, who has performed with jazz legends such as Bud Shank, Jon Hendricks, Bobby Shew, Dave Grusin, and Eric Alexander, to name just a few; Houston-raised, NY drummer KENDRICK SCOTT, who records as a leader on the Blue Note label; and the versatile multi-instrumentalist JAY THOMAS, one of Seattle's storied legends who has performed with a Who's Who of top jazz artists, and has recorded with Ray Brown and Elvin Jones, among many others.
Johnson opens SOMETHING GOOD with Stephen Sondheim's "Anyone Can Whistle," a song that posits that allowing oneself to experience love is as easy as learning to whistle. "Goodbye to Love" was originally a pop song composed by Richard Carpenter and John Bettis, and first performed by The Carpenters. But the arrangement by Johnson and Hansen turn the song into a straight-ahead jazz tune with solid scatting. Johnson adds a suggestive element to Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me" and demonstrates her creative phrasing on a subtly swinging version of "Lullaby of Birdland." Johnson was attracted to the clever lyrics of "Let's Do It," and her swinging, sensual interpretation mines them perfectly. Her arrangement of Leonard Bernstein and Adolph Green's "Some Other Time" takes the song into new territory with unexpected changes in meter. Johnson loves Carmen McRae's version of "Tip Toe Gently," but rather than emulate McRae, Johnson takes the song in a new direction. Johnson and Hansen made it new with a re-harmonization of "Unforgettable," which features a seductive muted trumpet performance by Thomas. Johnson closes the CD with "You for Me," an upbeat love song first performed by Blossom Dearie, and "Something Good" -- a perfect description of the music on this album, composed by Richard Rodgers (after Hammerstein's death) for the film version of The Sound of Music.
Kelley Johnson is endlessly creative. She plays with time and melody like a horn player, while her voice has a luminous quality. She and Hansen are also inventive arrangers, and their takes on these classics make them sound completely fresh and new.