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Molly Johnson sings Billie Holiday with understanding and love (review)

Molly Johnson ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Molly Johnson
Ontario Scene
National Arts Centre Theatre
Friday, May 1, 2015

Toronto vocalist Molly Johnson has such a strong public persona that she doesn't always get enough credit for her outstanding skills as an improviser and jazz musician.

In fact, much like Billie Holiday, the iconic vocalist whom she was honouring at the National Arts Centre on Friday. Most of the songs Johnson sang were ones made famous by Holiday – and even a few written by her.

Particularly since Lady Sings the Blues, the 1972 film starring Diana Ross, Holiday has been portrayed as the lady with the gardenia in her hair, or as a drug-addled victim. Instead, she was a ground-breaking vocalist who carved out a place for herself in music with her own forceful personality and talent and unique way of using her voice as an instrument.

One of Johnson's successes in Because of Billie, her new album which she was showcasing at the concert, is to reframe Holiday as a black woman who broke massive barriers, allowing her successors, like Johnson, to have successful careers. She described Holiday as a “feminist before that word existed, and a punk rocker before that existed, and a game-changer."

So it was particularly appropriate that Johnson began the concert with “Lady Sings the Blues”, sung simply with a blues swing over syncopated bass and piano. When Johnson sings, you can clearly hear and understand every word, and she let the bittersweet words in this song speak for themselves – and emphasize the message that this lady wasn't going to let the blues take her over.

Johnson was accompanied by two long-time friends and musical colleagues: Mike Downes on double bass and Robi Botos on Steinway grand piano. Downes has been playing with her for 20 years, and also produced and chose the material for Because of Billie – and, as she mentioned, surprised her by even playing trombone on one number on the CD. Botos and Downes also regularly perform together in their own groups.

She also briefly noted that she was missing a drummer – the promised Terry Clarke. No reason was given for his absence, but Botos and Downes easily expanded their performances to provide a full-bodied and varied counterpoint and accompaniment to Johnson's vocals. I could have happily listened to their inventive solos all night even without Johnson – Downes playing both melody and rhythm, and alternating deep fat notes and quick almost tap-dancing beats near the bridge of his bass; Botos playing inside on the strings of the piano (both muted and harp-like) as well as on the keys.

Also missing were CDs for sale in the lobby: Johnson apologized several times for her record company not providing them, especially since part of the proceeds from album sales are going to the Boys and Girls Club. Johnson picked that charity because its work helps children overcome difficult childhoods, just as Holiday had, and because the funds raised would help local clubs where she sang. During one of her song breaks, she talked about how she spent considerable time researching where the songwriting royalties from Holiday's own compositions had gone, because Holiday had died without a will. She discovered that many of the copyrights were owned by Universal, her own record company, and persuaded them to donate a portion of that money to the Boys and Girls Club.

There was lots of swing in the music at the concert: an upbeat version of “How Deep is the Ocean?” was particularly suited to Botos' strong percussive style, with Johnson singing it almost as though she was in front of a big band. “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” was one of Holiday's brightest numbers – Johnson described it as “super-hard and super-fast and I think he [Downes] picked it just to bug me” – and the trio played it with a great deal of joy.

Botos charged into “They Can't Take That Away From Me” with a sizzling piano solo and Downes added swinging bass lines. Johnson's vocals easily matched that sizzle, ending with an improvised “little old me, super-bad me”. “Mean to Me” was a sassy number, with lots of room for piano pyrotechnics.

Johnson often played with the lyrics, particularly as she closed out songs: repeating sections of lines, and improvising on the words (in “Moonlight”, she ended one “ooh ooh ooh” chorus with “ouch!”). She even dropped out of songs to interpose comments to the audience before continuing. It was a very informal and conversational style – her Molly Johnson persona – which also drew the audience in.

I was even more impressed when she slowed down: for example, in the slow intro to the lonely “In My Solitude”, which clearly connected with the audience, as did Downes' echoing bass solo. She sung the beautiful “Don't Explain” almost as a lullaby, in an empathetic performance that was a real show-stopper.

Her version of “God Bless the Child” was carefully tuned, contrasting the bleakness of the lyrics mid-song with the ultimate hope at the end. Starting out quietly, she almost belted out part of the song like a gospel number: “I said, God Bless! God Bless!” and ended by adding her own message that, if you've got your own, take it out and spread it around!

In the last few years, I've only heard “Body and Soul” as an instrumental, and particularly as a tenor sax showcase. It was good to be reminded how perfectly the words are put together and how they fit the melody so well. Johnson sang it conversationally with a tinge of sadness, with Botos' intimate and quiet piano solo underlining the melancholy mood, in a lovely rendition.

“Fine and Mellow” showed off Johnson's expressive voice and gestures in the bluesy number, along with deep growling bass lines in a piano/bass duet.

“Strange Fruit” – which was the other side to “Fine and Mellow” when Holiday first released it – is a difficult song to sing. The subject (a lynching) is inherently dramatic and dreadful but it needs a careful, almost-understated reading to bring out the horror in the lyrics. Johnson gave it a simple reading accompanied by sparse bass and piano that nevertheless riveted the attention of the audience.

Johnson also included two of her own songs, each in the middle of a set. Her vibrant and accented delivery of “If You Know Love” fit in remarkably well in style with the Holiday-era standards, as did “Rain”. Both received immediate anticipatory applause within a few bars.

Botos and Downes also had a chance to display their talents alone: the second set began with a bluesy instrumental, "Yes, I Don't." by Botos (with a bit of an Oscar Peterson feel), which he and Downes played as a rollicking and highly interactive duet that invoked very strong applause.

The almost-capacity audience (the show was marked by the NAC as sold out but one could notice empty seats) was warm throughout, recognizing solos, laughing at Johnson's anecdotes, and applauding happily. Johnson talked about how she learned to skate when she lived in Ottawa (in Toronto, she studied at the National Ballet School and students there weren't allowed to skate). She proudly announced that her son had been accepted to start studying at the University of Ottawa next year (choosing it over McGill and U of T), and said she was going over there Saturday morning to check the place out.

Johnson closed out the show with a lively version of “Summertime”, with both Botos and Downes getting creative on their instruments and everyone stretching out. By time she got to the “rise up singing” lines, she was singing it gospel style, and adding a touch of scatting. Almost all the audience rose for a standing ovation, and her encore was one of her trademark numbers, “Miss Celie's Blues (Sister)” – a swinging and hopeful number that inspired an even bigger ovation.

Although Because of Billie is Molly Johnson's first tribute album – and the nearest she's come to a pure jazz album – she's had a long relationship with Billie Holiday. “Don't Explain” was on her first album, Molly Johnson, and “Mean to Me” on her 2008 Juno-winning album, Lucky. It was clear from Friday's show that she and her musicians have a real empathy with Holiday's material. It was a wonderful memorial to the 100th anniversary of Holiday's birth this year.

    – Alayne McGregor

Updated 2015 May 2 to add second set song title, "Yes, I Don't."

Set 1:

  1. Lady Sings the Blues
  2. How Deep is the Ocean?
  3. If You Know Love (Steve MacKinnon, Molly Johnson)
  4. In My Solitude
  5. What a Little Moonlight Can Do
  6. Don't Explain
  7. They Can't Take That Away From Me

Set 2:

  1. Yes, I Don't. (Robi Botos)
  2. God Bless the Child
  3. Rain (Steve MacKinnon, Molly Johnson)
  4. Body and Soul
  5. Mean to Me
  6. Fine and Mellow
  7. Strange Fruit
  8. Summertime

Encore: Miss Celie's Blues (Sister) (Quincy Jones, Rod Temperton, Lionel Richie)

All photos copyright ©Brett Delmage, 2015

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