©Brett Delmage, 2018
After the last notes of Molly Johnson's rendition of "Summertime" died away, the audience called her and her band back with a standing ovation. (l-r: Robi Botos, Mike Downes, Molly Johnson, Davide DiRenzo) ©Brett Delmage, 2019

Molly Johnson
Shenkman Arts Centre, Ottawa
Friday, March 1, 2019 – 8 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Molly Johnson brought three friends and favourite musicians with her to Ottawa on Friday, for a concert that was inimitably hers in style and musical vibe.

To an easy and insinuating beat, she sashayed onto the stage at the Shenkman Arts Centre – and told the audience, “This is gonna be a little bit of groove, a little bit of soul, a little bit of jazz, and a little bit of Marvin Gaye 1976”. And then she launched into Gaye's “Inner City Blues”, a song which quietly but unwaveringly demanded more out of life.

Combining new tunes with standards and old favourites, the Toronto jazz vocalist presented a concert that celebrated hope and love, even in its sad songs. It was a very “Molly” show, with her talking intimately in an almost-stream of consciousness style to every single person of the hundreds in the large theatre. She told stories, praised her band members, joked about herself, got laughs when she lightly referred to current federal politics, and treated the stage much like her living room.

Not every singer can do this, but Johnson has a warm and striking stage presence, and, together with her band members, the musical talent to pull it off. And, as she told the audience, they did it without rehearsals – although that seemed a bit doubtful given the smooth and assured pacing of the show.

With her were three accomplished Toronto jazz musicians, with whom she's performed for many years: pianist Robi Botos, bassist Mike Downes, and drummer Davide DiRenzo. Johnson is nominated for a JUNO Award for this year for her latest album, Meaning to Tell Ya; Botos is also a 2019 JUNO nominee in another category. Johnson, Botos, and Downes are all previous JUNO winners.

Botos was surrounded by both a grand piano and keyboard, and repeatedly switched between them, sometimes in the same song. Throughout the show, he selected different voices on his keyboard, including organ, which added interest and texture. Downes played electric bass on the more grooving numbers, and double bass on the straight jazz tunes.

It's been more than three years since Johnson last played Ottawa, and the audience greeted her by clapping to the beat and immediate enthusiastic applause. They began applauding even before the end of her immersive and powerful rendition of “Inner City Blues”, and only increased the volume of that applause after the song ended.

She followed that with “Lady Day and John Coltrane” by jazz iconoclast Gil Scott-Heron, noting that her father played Scott-Heron's music all the time at home when she was growing up. It was a harder-edged song, but at the same time more optimistic in its lyrics, calling on Coltrane and Billie Holiday to “wash your troubles away”. Johnson alternately declaimed and purred the lyrics, with Botos' sparkling keyboard lines, Downes' solid electric bass rhythm, and DiRenzo's muscular drumbeats driving the song behind her.

That naturally led to the Billie Holiday standard, “Don't Explain”, performed softly in a more traditional jazz style. Delicate piano tracery introduced the song, and then Johnson cradled and soothed the lyrics – while still vividly conveying their heartbreak. It was a rendition designed to evoke tears, with a ringing double bass solo that was almost as heartsore as her singing.

The “deep, dark, slit-your-wrist kind of mood” continued with the ballad, “Haunted”, written by Downes. Johnson can deliver a song with utter sincerity without ever going over the edge, and created a deeply moving picture of lost love with her aching vocals over DiRenzo's atmospheric cymbals and Botos' sorrowful piano.

Johnson returned to jazz ballads several times during the show, each time to appreciative applause from the audience. In “I Loves You, Porgy” (from the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess) and in Downes' tune “Tristes Souvenirs”, her wistful and heartfelt singing was matched by Botos' expressive piano.

On the other hand, her version of “Lady Sings the Blues” (another number from her 2014 tribute album to Billie Holiday) was fast and scintillating, sparked by bluesy, accented piano and propulsive drumming. No melancholy in this number: instead, Johnson's voice rang out, determined and tempestuous.

“Better Than This” was a similarly determined number with an uplifting theme: “On an ordinary day when the world can seem so cruel/ I know that love will find a way,” she sang. “Just a little patience, baby, we're better than this.” It was inspired by a catchphrase she kept hearing on television news, and was a soulful number with a rich organ voice and a bit of funk, which evoked cheers and strong applause.

Johnson didn't just give kudos to her band in words: as she's done in previous shows, she had them perform two instrumental numbers. In the first set, Downes introduced the jazz standard, “I Hear a Rhapsody”, from his album Ripple Effect: it was a happy number that the band first let swing and then had fun exploring and deconstructing.

In the second set, Botos led the band in performing his reminiscent and nuanced composition, “Budapest”, from his latest album, Old Soul, which pays homage to his homeland of Hungary and his childhood neighbourhoods. In it, he played on the strings inside the piano to excellent effect, the solid muted tones contrasting with the flowing, classically-influenced full melody.

The show ended with two songs from Johnson's latest CD. “Protest Song”, an upbeat number designed to be sung on a march or at a demonstration, was one of my favourites for its joyful feel and catchy beat and fiery message, but it didn't seem to click as well with the audience. Perhaps it was too activist for some?

And “L.O.V.E.” was a straight-out call-to-action, telling people to “lead with the heart” when “the message is dark”, and “Don't roll over cos this ain't over”. Botos gave it strong forward momentum with intense playing on both piano and keyboards, and Johnson danced to the beat as she called out the words.

The audience responded with cheers and strong applause and a partial standing ovation.

For an encore, Johnson sang a beautiful version of George Gershwin's “Summertime”. It opened dramatically with deep muted piano, resonant bass, and tapping cymbals, and then her flexible voice simply told the story of the song, conversationally and yet with great feeling. It began as sleepy as a hot summer day, and as she sang “You're going to rise up singing” became more and more full and joyous. It faded out slowly, as she murmured “Summertime” quietly and repeatedly over otherworldly piano, and then told the audience to “take take care of yourselves and take care of each other”.

The audience leapt to its feet for a complete standing ovation.

It was a fitting end to a concert which displayed Johnson's strengths as an artist: flowing, soaring and uplifting music, talented musicians who work intuitively with her and among themselves, and a star quality that coexists with a real ability to establish rapport with her audience.

Set 1

  1. Inner City Blues [Marvin Gaye] (from “Meaning to Tell Ya”)
  2. Lady Day and John Coltrane [Gil Scott-Heron] (from “Meaning to Tell Ya”)
  3. Don't Explain [Billie Holiday, Arthur Herzog Jr.] (from “Because of Billie”)
  4. Haunted [Mike Downes] (from “Another Day”)
  5. I Hear a Rhapsody [George Fragos, Jack Baker and Dick Gasparre] (from “Ripple Effect”)
  6. Better Than This [Molly Johnson, Steve MacKinnon] (from “Meaning to Tell Ya”)
  7. Let's Waste Some Time [Molly Johnson, Steve MacKinnon] (from “Messin' Around”)

Set 2

  1. Lady Sings the Blues [Billie Holiday / Herbie Nichols] (from “Because of Billie”)
  2. I Loves You, Porgy [George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin]
  3. Tristes Souvenirs [Mike Downes, Molly Johnson] (from “Messin' Around”)
  4. Rain [Molly Johnson, Steve MacKinnon] (from “Messin' Around”)
  5. Budapest [Robi Botos] (from “Old Soul”)
  6. Protest Song [Molly Johnson, Davide DiRenzo] (from “Meaning to Tell Ya”)
  7. L.O.V.E. (from “Meaning to Tell Ya”)
  8. (encore) Summertime [George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin] (from “Another Day”)

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