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Jazz Café @ Tanglewood
Lenox, MA
September 4, 2010

by J Hunter

I’ll be the first to admit it: I don’t know everyone and everything in this genre; then again, nobody does (except maybe Nat Henthoff, and he doesn’t have an email addy I can use to ask him). So when I saw Tanglewood Jazz Festival’s Jazz Café was featuring the Kelley Johnson Quartet before Kurt Elling’s appearance at Ozawa Hall, no bells rang. Leaving home early to check out Johnson’s show was one of those “Why not?” decisions, and the results are proof that life gives you good stuff if you leave the door open to happenstance.

We barely missed the rain that had been playing hit-and-run with the Berkshires all afternoon, but the sodden look some festival-goers wore said they hadn’t been so lucky – and the bad luck continued for anyone who decided to watch Johnson’s show from outside the Café’s massive white tent. Johnson and her husband/pianist John Hansen hadn’t been having a good day, either: They’d flown in from their Seattle home base that morning, only to find the airline had lost their luggage. (“I was really concerned we might end up in Charlotte today,” Johnson confided later.) So the air was filled with dampness and disappointment… but as far as Johnson was concerned, it was all good in Tanglewood.

“This is really special,” she enthused before launching into her opener “Lucky to be Me.” The piece swung like Tarzan through the jungle as Hansen’s ebullient piano buoyed the song even as it buoyed Johnson. “There’s no other girl I gotta be,” she sang happily. “I gotta laugh out loud!” It was so good, even people sitting through the last drizzle of the day laughed, too. It didn’t even hurt when she followed “Lucky” by sitting on a stool and delivering a textbook torch-song take on “Come Rain or Come Shine.”

Johnson is one of those singers that visibly feel every note that’s played or sung, and her commitment to making each tune a little better than the last is right out front. She’s also got this amazing alto that she uses like an alto sax, giving Hansen one more piece to play with: Johnson’s haunting vocalese on the title track of her last disc Home added one more drop of loneliness to her blues-laced lyrics; her scatting on Chick Webb’s “Stompin’ at the Savoy” leaped and bounded around the tables; and her three-tempo deconstruction of “Tea for Two” had the history-minded in the crowd thinking of Anita O’Day.

Hansen’s technical prowess is only superseded by the energy with which he attacks his keyboard. Every solo was a home run, and he easily alternated between waltz and blues on “The Tender Trap.” The quartet’s third “voice” came from drummer Youran Israel, who played with Johnson at Birdland “back in the 90’s.” (Johnson quickly added, “Which is as far as I’m willing to go!”) There’s nothing like a drummer who treats every bit of his kit as part of the playing surface, and Israel used every tool he had to give each tune just the right amount of love. His nuanced in-the-clear opening to Abbey Lincoln’s “Should’ve Been” prefaced Johnson’s best performance of the set.

I’d known I was going to get great vocals before I got to Tanglewood – Kurt Elling gives you no less. But the Kelley Johnson Quartet added an unexpected first course that turned a potentially great musical meal into a serious feast. Mmm mmm good!

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.