MOLLY JOHNSON: ‘Lucky’ (Verve)

Canadian jazz chanteuse Molly Johnson has been singing for years – she began as a child performer in stage musicals – without gaining much in the way of acclaim and recognition. Happily, though, that situation has now changed for good after the former lead singer of Maple Leaf bands Chocolate Affair, Alta Moda and The Infidels made a significant international breakthrough with her third solo album, ‘If You Know Love,’ in 2007. The title song was embraced by a mainstream audience thanks to heavy rotation on Michael Parkinson’s influential BBC radio show. One year on and smoky-voiced Johnson is back with what is undoubtedly her best long-player yet. In the main, ‘Lucky’ finds the Toronto singer taking on well-worn standards like Duke Ellington’s ‘Solitude’ and ‘I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good,’ along with Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life,’ and George Gershwin’s ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ and ‘I Loves You, Porgy.’ On paper, this new album might not sound like an attractive or exciting proposition to some listeners – especially those who’ve endured a surfeit of reheated standards over the years and don’t see much or any value in someone performing something that has been recorded hundreds of times. However, standard songs taken from the American Songbook are to jazz singers what Shakespeare plays are to stage actors – they are essential vehicles for demonstrating a performer’s understanding and mastery of the idiom they inhabit. So, with this in mind, how does Molly Johnson fare? Well, I’m happy to report remarkably well. In fact, on the evidence of her magnetic, compelling and wholly convincing performances here, she’s shaping up to be one of jazz’s future greats. There’s a complete naturalness about her performances – nothing is forced or contrived and the overall vibe is relaxed and assured. Johnson’s backed by a trio comprising drummer, Mark McLean, bassist Mike Downes and pianist Phil Dywer (who also doubles on tenor saxophone), who provide sympathetic accompaniment throughout. In addition to lovely renderings of the standards already mentioned, Johnson puts a new spin on ‘If I Were A Bell,’ ‘April in Paris,’ and ‘Mean To Me.’ In terms of tone, phrasing and expression, Johnson’s reading of her material is flawless. Ironically, the album’s best cut isn’t a standard but a tremendous funked-up jazz-style retread of ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ by country singer, Bobbie Gentry, which Johnson imprints with her own musical identity. The opening title cut – an original co-penned by Johnson – is also noteworthy. One of the best – if not THE best – jazz vocal albums of 2008.
(CW) 4/5