Ellen Johnson: A jazz child’s child in Berkeley

Ellen Johnson, playing
Ellen Johnson, playing the Californian Jazz Conservatory Saturday June 20. Photo: courtesy Ellen Johnson

Is there anything that chocolate can’t do? An offering to the Mayan gods, a source of joy for children around the world, and an abiding bond between two great jazz musicians who perform 8 p.m. Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory.

Polymathic vocalist Ellen Johnson was attending a jazz education convention in Toronto back in 2003 when she met the well-traveled tenor saxophonist Don Braden, an encounter that led to an intermittent but ongoing collaboration. Over the years they’ve conducted numerous workshops demystifying the sinuous dance between singers and horn players, performed occasional concerts, and a developed a firm friendship cemented by their love of dark chocolate.

For Braden, who just finished a three-year stint as the interim conductor for the Harvard University Monday Jazz Band, Saturday’s concert is an extremely rare gig in the Bay Area. Joining forces with Johnson, pianist Keith Saunders, bassist Peter Barshay, and drummer Akira Tana, he’ll probably play some material from an album slated for release next month. He and Johnson also teach a CJC workshop Sunday afternoon focusing on vocalist/horn player interaction “Musical Liaisons: Billie Holiday and Lester Young.”

“He’s a great musician and a great mind,” says Johnson, an educator, entrepreneur, biographer, actor and lyricist. “We’ve got a good connection, and I really love the guy. It’s a thrill for me to have him come out. We go way back and have always had a great relationship musically, and the fact we both appreciate dark chocolate was something we bonded on.”


Braden studied engineering at Harvard in the early 1980s, while also holding down the tenor chair in the jazz ensemble he returned to Boston to lead decades later (Joshua Redman and Anton Schwartz followed him in the band’s sax section). Moving to New York City in the mid-1980s at the height of the Young Lions movement, he first gained attention with the hard bop Harper Brothers combo, and toured with Wynton Marsalis in 1986-87. He gained invaluable experience working with jazz legends like Dr. Lonnie Smith, drummer Roy Haynes, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and trombonist J.J. Johnson, but earned his stripes as a thoughtful and supportive partner for vocalists with the high-flying improviser Betty Carter.

“He brings a whole world with him,” Johnson says. “I was a huge fan of Betty Carter, and he has such interesting things to say about working with her. He’s so supportive to singers, and really enjoys working with them.”

Johnson, who is part of the CJC’s talent-laden vocal faculty, is also celebrating the release of a beautiful new album of duets Form & Formless. Collaborating with guitarists Larry Koonse and John Stowell, she recorded impromptu improvisations, an ethereal wordless rendition John Coltrane’s “Naima,” and a celebratory version of Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” rechristened with her original lyrics as “Sonny’s Isle of St. Thomas.”

As the title suggests, the album is all about exploring song form and spontenious invention, creating songs “in the studio with no charts, nothing,” she says. “One person starts and the other follows. With the death of Ornette Coleman I’ve been thinking about how I’ve always loved free improvisation and taking risks. At the same time, we also explore these great compositions in our own voices.”

Both guitarists are superlative musicians and highly sensitive partners. Stowell in particular has carved out a niche with nearly a dozen albums of duo encounters, including 2013’s Blue Rose (Origin) with saxophone great

Dave Liebman. One of his most recent albums is an Origin session released earlier this year recorded live at CJC with Albany saxophonist Michael Zilber, Live Beauty (full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes). Johnson met Stowell when she lived in Portland, Ore. back in 1980, and they’ve performed together ever since (though this is their first recording).

“He’s got this sound that’s so him,” Johnson says. “That’s what I love, musicians who have their own sound. Larry Koonse is another amazing guitarist, and one of the sweetest people. I don’t mind being exposed and taking risks. I know I’m going to fall sometimes, but all the singers I love, Mark Murphy, Betty Carter, Sheila Jordan, they had those risk-taking personalities. Sometimes it’s amazing, and sometimes I wish I hadn’t gone there.”

Sheila Jordan is indirectly responsible for the timing of the album’s release. Johnson recorded the tracks back in 2008, but had started working on biography of the singer, one of the most important jazz singers of the post-World War II era (who’s still going strong at 86). Her book Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan (Rowman & Littlefield) was published last September and nominated as one of year’s best jazz books by the Jazz Journalists Association. In her dedication to her craft, her generosity as a mentor, her creative flowering after the age of 50, and her constant celebration of Charlie Parker, her foundational source of inspiration, Jordan holds a singular spot in the jazz firmament.

“She truly believes that Charlie Parker and jazz saved her life,” Johnson says. “Now all these singers have all this connection with her. She touches people and takes the time to share with them. She’s teaching other singers how to be generous and work together cooperatively.”

More than her biographer, Johnson has clearly taken Jordan’s most important lessons to heart.

Recommended gig: Free World at Berkeley Arts Festival

The Berkeley Arts Festival performance space at 2133 University Ave. kicks off a new monthly series 8 p.m. June 18 Free World, with veteran violinist India Cooke and saxophonist Lewis Jordan convening a different cast of improvisers every third Thursday through September. They describe the series as “a new forum for great black art and beyond…from the roots to the branches of music, dance, visual art, and word. Tonight’s performance includes bassist Joe McKinley, percussionist Kele Nitoto, and drummer Donald Robinson (who recently released a prodigious duo session with Berkeley saxophonist Larry Ochs, The Throne). San Jose trumpeter Eddie Gale, who recorded two classic albums for Blue Note in the late 1960s, and worked extensively with Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra, joins the proceedings as special guest.

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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