“So much of life, like music, is the art of listening and responding,” said west coast vocalist Ellen Johnson
about her recording, Form & formless
, released June 9, 2015 by Vocal Visions Records. So far the recording has received praise for it's unusual format based on what Johnson calls the “formless” way, taken from a poem by Lao Tzu referring to the way of life. Half of the recording was created from free improvisations she recorded with guitarist John Stowell
and the other half, primarily duets with guitarist Larry Koonse
As George Harris of Jazz Weekly
writes, Tired of the same old 'Great American Songbook' endlessly rehashed, but don’t want mindless vocal improvisations? Get a load of Ellen Johnson’s latest album, Form and Formless
....This disc will renew your faith in jazz vocals once again."
The songs based on “form” are written by jazz heavyweights like, John Coltrane
, Thelonoius Monk
, Charles Mingus
and Sonny Rollins
including a haunting impromptu trumpet solo by Nolan Shaheed
on “Round Midnight” with lyrics by Babs Gonzales. “All the free improvisations were invented in the moment," said Johnson, with no preconceived ideas, overdubs or special effects. I used my voice along with the guitar to create a soundscape often producing vocal sounds that appeared otherworldly.”
Most singers are not comfortable with having to create a song on the spot, out of nothing, but not Johnson. She has made improvising a major part of her vocal expression studying avant-garde music, sitting in horn sections as the only vocalist in her formative jazz years, and by being hand selected by Bobby McFerrin
to workshop his Voicestra group. “I love the challenge of free improvisation so having the opportunity to be supported by two amazing guitarists who are at home in this element made the project an absolute delight.” Each duet shapes a tapestry of colors allowing sounds to flow freely, strings to vibrate without designated direction and common ground to be found in the interpretations of the musicians.
Johnson’s devotion to the jazz world spans more three decades as a professional jazz recording artist, educator, songwriter, lyricist, author, and publicist. She has performed, recorded and studied with many exceptional musicians that include Charles McPherson
, Louie Bellson
, Sheila Jordan
, Don Braden
, John Clayton
and recently completed the biography Jazz Child: Portrait of Sheila Jordan
published by Rowman and Littlefield. Johnson believes the basis of innovation is the ability to create something out of nothing or transform something into our own vision and Form & formless
is Johnson’s musical testament.