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Molly Johnson ups the energy and vibe at a sold-out NAC show

Molly Johnson listened to and appreciated her band, including pianist Robi Botos. ©Brett Delmage, 2013Read the OttawaJazzScene.ca review of Molly Johnson's Ontario Scene show on May 1, 2015.

Molly Johnson
NAC Presents

Friday, March 8, 2013
Studio, National Arts Centre

View photos of this concert

A few bass notes sounded, followed by the piano: a quiet ballad intro for a few bars. And then Molly Johnson slipped onto the stage of the NAC Studio, opened her mouth, and the whole energy level of the room hopped up by several orders of magnitude.

The stage was simply dressed with a few Paisley rugs; the lighting was static and unobtrusive. The audience's whole attention was focused on the musicians, and the vibe was intense.

It was Johnson singing jazz standards and her greatest hits. It was an audience with a large percentage of her long-time fans. And, combined with a great backing trio, it was a concert to remember.

Most of the songs came from her 2011 best-of collection, The Molly Johnson Songbook, and covered her entire career. They ranged from ballads to blues to sassy up-tempo numbers, and all were delivered in her uniquely husky and expressive voice.

She was well supported by a trio of Toronto musicians who really know how to swing – and how to lightly accompany quieter numbers. Johnson noted that bassist Mike Downes had been playing with her for 20 years; pianist Robi Botos and drummer Larnell Lewis are more recent additions, but all four were clearly comfortable and copacetic together.

Johnson began with the Gershwin standard, “But not for me”, a swinging number which she ended with a vocal flourish – a style she'd repeat several times that evening. Then came a jazzy version of the country hit, “Ode to Billie Joe”, where the piano mimicked the cadences of her voice as she told the story, and in which she scatted on repeated individual words in the song. “Let's waste some time” was delivered as a confessional ballad, with seductive overtones.

She introduced “If you know love” by talking about how French audiences love her music (she toured there regularly for most of the last decade), and how she approves of their taste in wine, cheese – and jazz. She sang it with a smile in her voice, emphasizing the romantic lyrics.

The beat was much more pronounced in the next number, “Sticks and Stones”, emphasizing the message of needing to work it out instead of fighting. The song, co-written by her and Downes, began with strongly accented riffs on bass and piano, and ended with a duet between Johnson's vocals and Lewis' full drum riffs.

Billy Strayhorn's “Lush Life” is an elegant and melancholy description of love gone wrong, and Johnson's sincere and beautiful rendition drew strong applause from the audience. They were equally happy with the next song, “Diamond in my Hand”, a number from her first album which she described as “my country tune”, but which I'd call more gospel. The song started quietly and ended with her belting out the lyrics about supporting each other.

The second set began with just the band, playing the Burt Bacharach tune “Close to You” in an instrumental rendition that almost made me forget the sappy lyrics in the version by the Carpenters. Botos started alone, adding jazz accents to the melody; Downes and Lewis joined in with insistent solos, and the piece became steadily more abstract and rhythmic – and more interesting. The piece drew a standing ovation from some audience members.

Johnson entered with “Gee baby, ain't I good to you?” which she described as “a great tune with really stupid lyrics.” The interesting thing about this version was how she and the other musicians played with that melody, echoing it on bass, extending the intro on piano, and adding high grace notes. Her belting out of the last few lines engendered strong applause from the audience.

“Lucky”, the title tune from her 2008 Juno-winning album, was a happy-making song where the music just flowed, and the song fit the singer like a glove. The mood then shifted to intimate with Duke Ellington's “(In My) Solitude”, in which Johnson's gravelly voice and Downes' full-bodied bass solo added interest to the simple, sombre melody. “Rain”, which Johnson co-wrote as a tribute to the city of Montreal, continued the sad mood, with its almost hypnotic melody echoing lyrics like “I'm going around and around”.

As a tribute to International Women's Day, the show ended with “Miss Celie's Blues (Sister, you've been on my mind)”. To me, this song epitomizes Johnson's style: delivered with bravado and joy, it's a wonderful song of celebration.

I've noticed that, at least in vocal shows, it's often during the last song of the night that the musicians get the most chance to spread out and take extended solos, and that was true for this song. Botos played with his piano strings, muting some keys, vibrating notes, and occasionally strumming the strings; Downes picked up the song's melody in an extended bass solo, supported by Botos. Lewis played a sparse and restrained drum solo, punctuated with cymbal interludes. All of this worked to support the song, which Johnson delivered like an old-time blues singer.

The audience jumped to its feet for a standing ovation.

For the encore, the backing trio proceeded to have fun and bemuse the audience by shifting instruments. Botos moved to the drums, Downes to the piano, and Lewis to the bass as if they belonged there. They did a credible job of supporting Johnson in her rendition of “Summertime”, which started out dramatically, and then moved to intimate story-telling. For the second encore piece, they moved back to their regular places, and produced a fast, rhythmic backing for “Mean to me” – a sparkling number delivered in the best big band tradition, but with Johnson adding commentary within the lyrics.

Near the end of the show, Johnson called out, “Great band!” and later thanked them for being music nerds. This appears to be typical: in a recent interview in Torontoist, she talks about the importance of having a great team, allowing them “the space to be fantastic”, and playing to their strengths.

And all three were strong musicians, both individually and as a trio. Especially since Botos won the Montreal Jazz Festival's TD Grand Jazz Award last summer (with a band that included Downes), it's surprising that the NAC has not brought him as one of its featured jazz artists. Perhaps that could be a hint for the 2013-14 line-up for NAC Presents?

This was Johnson's first appearance in Ottawa since 2008, when she played a free Canada Day show at the Ottawa Jazz Festival (also well-received). But clearly she had not forgotten Ottawa: she lived here for a few years as a child, and at the start of the concert made a point of mentioning her Ottawa connections – Hopewell Public School and the Glebe Community Centre. She later recognized and singled out an audience member who was a childhood friend of her brother's.

Not coincidentally, in 2008 she also started a second career as a weekend radio host on CBC Radio 2, which has meant a diminution of her concert and recording schedule, although she still plays some high-profile shows, such as headlining at Massey Hall in Toronto last November, and a show at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola (part of Jazz at Lincoln Center) in NYC in February.

She also occasionally tours through Ontario and Quebec: this concert was part of a three-show mini-tour. Given the enthusiastic reception for this sold-out concert, one would hope that she'll be back in Ottawa before another five years.

    – Alayne McGregor

Set List
Set 1
  1. But not for me (George & Ira Gershwin)
  2. Ode to Billie Joe (Bobbie Gentry)
  3. Let's waste some time (Marc Jordan, Steve MacKinnon)
  4. If you know love (Steve MacKinnon, Molly Johnson)
  5. Sticks and stones (Mike Downes, Molly Johnson)
  6. Lush Life (Billy Strayhorn)
  7. Diamond in my Hand (Steve MacKinnon, Molly Johnson)
Set 2
  1. (They long to be) close to you (Burt Bacharach and Hal David)
  2. Gee baby, ain't I good to you? (Andy Razaf and Don Redman)
  3. Lucky (Molly Johnson, Steve MacKinnon)
  4. Solitude (Duke Ellington, Eddie DeLange and Irving Mills)
  5. Rain (Steve MacKinnon, Molly Johnson)
  6. Miss Celie's Blues (Sister) (Quincy Jones, Rod Temperton, Lionel Richie)

    Encores:
  7. Summertime (George Gershwin & DuBose Heyward)
  8. Mean to me (Fred E. Ahlert, Roy Turk)

See also:

All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2013

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