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Music is something definitely to be thankful for

26th November 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

The Many Sides (and Gigs!) of Calvin Johnson Jr.

Calvin Johnson Jr. comes from a New Orleans musical family where reeds rule. On hearing the saxophonist and clarinetist, one might even consider that he carries on what might be described as the “Johnson sound.”

Like his uncle Ralph Johnson Sr., who passed away in 2009, Calvin plays both saxophone and clarinet and is at home in various musical settings. His versatility is on display this week as Johnson celebrates the release of his fine debut CD, Jewel’s Lullaby, the Christmas holidays and his birthday at a string of dates at an array of venues.

On “Jewel’s Lullaby Johnson, 27, picks up his tenor and blows modern jazz leading his own quartet, the CJQ. The group includes his peers – drummer Joe Dyson, pianist Courtney Bryan and bassist Nathan Lambertson – all of whom are graduates of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA). His relationship with Dyson and Bryan dates back even further when the three attended the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Jazz Camp, headed by saxophonist Kidd Jordan. Johnson also studied under Jordan at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s Heritage School of Music.

Johnson and his bandmates’ educational and professional common ground can be realized on Jewel’s Lullaby. They back each other’s solos with thoughtfulness and come together as a team during ensemble work.

“Mr. Kerr (NOCCA educator Clyde Kerr Jr.) used to preach sometimes,” Johnson remembers. “He would hold his hands together so the two index fingers tips would meet. And he would look at all of us and say, ‘That’s what you have to be like when you play in a band. Y’all have to come to that point.’” They do just that as the album opens with a mellow tone on Miles Davis’ “So Near, So Far.”

Demonstrating New Orleans’ it’s a small world relationships, Johnson’s mother studied clarinet in grade school with the noted bandleader Clyde Kerr Sr. She was also influential in Calvin’s development as a saxophonist and his first clarinet was once her clarinet.

Johnson began his musical journey learning piano. That was until another uncle, Lionel Johnson, came over to Calvin’s home with an old, Martin alto saxophone that he removed from a leather-bound wooden case complete with a plush, red velvet lining.

“He picked up the horn and he started running all kinds of stuff on it,” Johnson recalls, “and then he handed it to me. He showed me how to form an embouchure and then he let me blow a couple of notes and we did that for about five minutes. The same time the next week, he showed up again. This went on for a few months.”

Johnson’s mother soon stepped in with, what he describes as an old, Egyptian-looking hourglass. “Don’t stop practicing until the sand runs out,” Calvin remembers her instructing.

Johnson was a senior in high school when he switched from alto to tenor saxophone. The change came after hearing his uncle, Ralph Johnson, play “My Foolish Heart” at Jazz Fest.

“The sound he laid down was so fat and thick, it just touched me,” Johnson vividly recalls. “ It just resonated in my bones. That’s the sound I started hearing and I went after it.”

That warm, rich tone can be heard in Johnson’s version of Tad Dameron’s beautiful ballad “If You Could See Me Now,” off of Jewel’s Lullaby, an album that offers a mix of selections by jazz masters and Johnson’s original material. The saxophonist’s title cut, named for his daughter Jewel, is particularly impressive in its range of emotional expressiveness that travels from soft and gentle to strong and invigorating.

“It’s the beginning of her life and I sing the melody to her,” says John?son. “Everything that I do I’m doing for the blossoming of her potential.”

Johnson’s week of celebrations started at Preservation Hall with a traditional jazz tribute to his uncle, Ralph Johnson. It continues at the Christ Church Cathedral, 2919 St. Charles Avenue, on Tuesday, November 27, for a Christmas program, the “Crescent City Winter Wonderland,” featuring the CJQ with Jewel’s Strings, a group whose members also all attended NOCCA. On November 30, Johnson teams with sousaphonist Kirk Joseph in the collaborative group Chapter: Soul at d.b.a. and the funkified band hits the next night at the Maple Leaf to commemorate Johnson’s 27th birthday. Finally on Wednesday, December 5, the CJQ, with pianist Eduardo Tozzato replacing Bryan who’s presently at Columbia University pursuing her doctorate degree, celebrates the release of Jewel’s Lullaby at Café Istanbul.

“The reason I am a musician is first of all I’m a fan of the music,” says Johnson who played beautiful soprano saxophone with the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band at drummer Bob French’s musically rich memorial. He was heard on Irvin Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra’s first CD, Strange Fruit and has blown with several brass bands.

“I am a solo artist now,” Johnson states with conviction. “I’m taking this leap of faith. I think it’s due.”

Rump-A-Pum-Pum Drum Summit Drummers & Holiday Beats of the Gulf South

“My intention is to make each song rhythmically different,” says pianist Larry Sieberth who is arranging the music for Wednesday night’s Drum Summit concert. The free performance at Tulane University’s Dixon Hall will include holiday favorites such as “Winter Wonderland,” “Jingle Bells” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with twists that reflects the styles of the featured drummers. Onboard for what Sieberth describes as a “rhythmic experience” are New Orleans own jazzmen Shannon Powell and Johnny Vidacovich and Cuban percussionist Alexey Marti, who is studying at the University of New Orleans and, incidentally, put on a strong show last week when he and his band opened for the legendary pianist Chucho Valdes at the Joy Theater.

“They come from very different (musical) places,” says Sieberth of the three drummers who will play individually, in pairings and all together along with an ensemble. The rhythms will move from New Orleans second line beats and traditional and modern jazz to those with origins in Cuba.

The free performance on Wednesday, November 28, which is presented by New Orleans for the Gulf Coast and the Music Rising charity, begins at 6:30 p.m.

This article was originally published in the November 26, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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