Singer Aubrey Johnson has been a rivetingly individualistic part of the fabric of the New York jazz scene, with both large and small ensembles for the better part of a decade. So it’s hard to believe that she’s only now releasing her debut album as a bandleader. That record, Unraveled, is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a chance to hear her arrestingly clear, crystalline voice delivering her own material as well as a few vastly multistylistic covers: it was worth the wait. Johnson has newfound gravitas in her lower registers as well as a little Americana rusticity further up the scale, bolstering an already formidable stylistic arsenal.
Herer she’s joined by by pianist Chris Ziemba, drummer Jeremy Noller and bassist Matt Aronoff, along with austere violin from Tomoko Omura. The band launch into a straight-up trip-hop groove to kick off the album with the understatedly angst-ridden twists and turns of No More I Love Yous, written by obscore 80s new wave duoThe Lover Speaks: “I used to have demons in my room at night,” Johnson confides.
She switches to Portuguese for an expansively spare take of the Jobim standard Dindi, Michael Sachs adding graceful clarinet. The duet between Johnson and Aronoff is tantalizingly brief; her spiraling vocalese before she sings the final verse in English wil give you goosebumps.
She leaps around, over fluttery bass clarinet, Ziemba’s insistent minimalism and Noller’s altered trip-hop beat in Happy to Stay, a souped-up chamber pop tune that sounds like Gretchen Parlato on steroids. Karate is a coyly funny, blippily wordless remake of a famous Egberto Gismonti theme that echoes Johnson’s Mycale bandmate Sofia Rei‘s most playful work.
“The dawn is calling your name,” Johnson intones soberly in the moodily syncopated ballad Lie in Wait, “Are we just hanging on to prove everybody wrong?” Sachs and Omura add judiciously energetic solos as the band go scampering. Ripples from Ziemba and the bass clarinet permeate Love Again, Johnson’s voice rising and dipping from daunting heights as the beat grows funkier.
Her take of Jimmy Rowles’ noir jazz classic The Peacocks, with a bracing solo from Sachs,, is especially spare and cinematic: the rapport with Ziemba’s icy backdrop brings to mind Sara Serpa‘s similarly chilling work with Ran Blake. These Days is not the Joy Division postpunk classic but a poignantly energetic, rainy-day original, Johnson working her entire range as the violin sails, Ziemba’s piano rages and then backs away.
The album’s title track is a song for our time, a portrait of dissociation and alienation: over a shifting modal groove, Johnson asks for anything that would generate some kind of emotional response. Alice Lee‘s most adventurous jazz work comes to mind. And Johnson reaches back to the tropics again with the jauntily lilting, matter-of-fact Voice Is Magic, through a stunningly phantasmagorical midsection. Admittedly, there haven’t been many albums released in the last few weeks, but this is still the frontrunner for best vocal jazz release of 2020.