Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 17, No.4, 2018

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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nancy Snipper
Farzana Hassan
Daniel Charchuk
Samuel Burd
Andrée Lafontaine
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
  Music Editors
Serge Gamache Emanuel Pordes
Diane Gordon
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont
Marcel Dubois
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Jazz Contributors

Tommy Emmanuel
John Stetch
Susie Arioli
Coral Egan
Diana Krall
Stacey Kent
Carol Welsman
Aldo Romano
Denzal Sinclaire
Madeleine Peyroux
Bireli Lagrene
Sonido Isleño
Provost & Lachapelle
Kevin Breit
Sophie Milman
Annie Poulain
Badi Assad
Donato & Bouchard
Ingrid Jensen
John Roney
Russell Malone
David Binney
Mimi Fox
Voo Doo Scat
Coral Egan
Martin Taylor
Jordan Officer
Melody Gardot
Jean Vanasse
Yves Léveillé
Sylvain Provost
Louciana Souza
Patricia Barber
Jill Barber
Corrine Bailey Rae
Chet Doxas
François Bourassa
Sylvain Luc
Neil Cowley
Marianne Trudel
Florence K
Terez Montcalm
Cyrus Chestnut
Tord Gustavsen
Sarah MK
Julie Lamontagne
Vincent Gagnon
Arioli & Officer
Jean Félix Mailloux
Becky Noble
Vijay Iyer
Lionel Loueke
Tia Fuller
Cécile McLorin Salvant
Emma Frank
Shai Maestro
Christine Jensen
Vincent Rehel
Kat Edmonson
Jaga Jazzist
Cline & Lage
Fred Hersch
Gregory Porter
Takuya Kuroda
Edmar Castaneda
Donny McCaslin
Kurt Rosenwinkel
Keyon Harrold
2010 Montreal Guitar Show (Sylvan Luc)

Montreal Jazz Festival 2010







Piano Keyboard


by Robert J. Lewis

Featured artist: SONIA JOHNSON


If July 2nd -- for the 39th edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival-- was your first encounter with Sonia Johnson, you would have been impressed that a real opera singer was invited to perform at a jazz festival. She was the special guest of local bad-boy keyboardist Vincent Rehel who was looking to add a layer of pain in the highest register to offset his primordial, synthesized-warped organ exudations. The combination – shattered glass and champagne on the brain -- was riveting. I’m sure listeners immediately went to the Who’sWho in opera, looking to learn more about Sonia, who is in fact a terrific, albeit much under-appreciated, jazz singer (in English) and talented songwriter (in French), blessed with a real singer’s voice and extensive vocal range that allows her to explore not only jazz, but sophisticated pop and opera.

She performed on three occasions (twice as invited guest) during the jazzfest, but it was her July 7th show, at one of the city’s celebrated jazz clubs, Diez/Onze (10/11 in English), that audiences got to hear the real Sonia Johnson at her very best, making the open-and-shut case that she deserves to be considered among the very best jazz singers in Canada.

With guitarist par excellence Stephen Johnston, they performed selections from their exquisite Dialogue Ella & Joe, (homage to the voice and guitar of Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass). They usually perform as a duo but for the jazz festival they were joined by three other musicians, including the much-in-demand, irrepressibly lyrical bassist Adrian Vedady, who, in the spirit of Ron Carter, never wastes a note while making every note sing.

It took no longer that a couple of note-perfect bars of music to realize that the title of their now long-running show (Dialogue Ella & Joe), is simply a stylistic (guitar and voice) reference point, or point of entry to the many standards the duo recorded between 1976 and 1986. But live, what the ear hears -- and wants to hear more of -- is an evening of some of the greatest American music ever written as performed by Sonia Johnson & Stephen Johnston. You don’t hear, or think or wish for Ella and Joe because the bewitched ear is already under the spell woven by Johnson & Johnston. As a duo, or in the larger context of a quintet, they have fashioned a musical dialogue of the highest order which does the genre proud.

There was a time when guitarist Stephen Johnston played like Frank Zappa wound up on steroids and low-grade rat poison. But that was then and now is now (demons fully exorcised) and his elegant accompaniment is much more than about routine shading and adding texture; his guitar is like another voice in a duet, where each voice is collaborating with the other in unearthing, in bringing into wonderfully explicit filigree the original feelings that gave birth to the song.

How high is the moon? The challenge of every jazz singer is how deep can you get into the lyric. Sonia Johnson is at her very best singing the slow stuff, the ballads, the litmus test for any singer. That we didn’t hear enough of them would be my only complaint in an evening of memorable music where grace notes abounded.

That Johnson is comfortable singing opera gives her a decided edge over other voices in jazz in that she is able to shape (to round, to contour) a note or a line of music. It’s a technique that allows the singer to more effectively probe the feelings that underwrite the lyrics. So when she brings this extra dimension to jazz, the overall effect is deliciously enhanced. But she can also change gears on a dime, and scat her voice on the A-train at full tilt, and then just as suddenly slow it down to an easy stroll or down tempo such as in the pensive classic “Lush Life “composed by “Sweet Pea” (Billy Strayhorn). It doesn’t take more than a couple of songs to realize that Sonia Johnson has all the necessary interpretive tools at her disposal to persuade an audience that “raindrops on roses” is a subject better suited to voice than painting. She can be ebullient one moment, wistful the next, but always a faithful servant of the song under consideration.

Is there a case to be made that she is one of Montreal’s best kept secrets, at least on this side of the Atlantic? She’ll be performing in France during the summer.

It is no small accomplishment that Sonia Johnson is able to transmute her vast life experience into the American Songbook and make you forget that the music has been performed by hundreds of other singers. If there is justice in the world – and we learn, especially in the arts, that there often isn’t – “the rest of Canada” and south of the border (including the dental floss fields in Montana) will be Sonia’s backyard for the indefinite future.

Be sure, “come rain or come shine,” to catch Dialogue Sonia & Stephen when they come to your neck of the woods.



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