2009 JUNO WINNER
for Best Vocal
CDs of the week 21.11.08
This charismatic Canadian has a voice that melts an audience in a second. Warm and natural, bittersweet and earthy, there's more than a tinge of Billie Holiday there, unlike lesser singers who make such claims yet sound more like Billie Piper. Stylishly backed by pianist Phil Dwyer's group, she phrases particularly well on April in Paris, Lush Life and I Loves You Porgy, singing without mannerisms and just letting the notes glow. Catch her at the Pizza Express club in Dean Street tonight. JACK MASSARIK
Toronto's Molly Johnson and a strong backup crew have done a stellar job in her first full recording of jazz classics and contemporary songs, in straight ahead, often swinging styles. On Whatever Lola Wants, shades of Eartha Kitt emerge as she underplays the sultry and drives the harder edges, with Phil Dwyer on piano. Dwyer switches to tenor sax for the intro and overdubs to Johnson's Billie-ish I Got it Bad, and that Ain't Good. With her slightly raspy reading of Billy Strayhorn's Lush Life (Ben Riley on drums), she makes that classic entirely her own, while her moderately aching cover of Ruth Lowe's I'll Never Smile Again is tender without sounding maudlin. Rating 4 1/2
Podworthy: If I Were a Bell
Winnipeg Free Press
This is the CD that Molly Johnson has been on the verge of making for years now. A collection of jazz standards, it is her best yet. It swings (Whatever Lola Wants and Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You), it's sultry (I Got it Bad and It Ain't Necessarily So), it's sophisticated (Lush Life and Solitude), but most of all, it is obvious she had a lot of fun recording these beloved standards.
Audiences who caught her at last year's Jazz Winnipeg Festival heard her performing some of these songs for the first time, and it is the same band here that lifts her on Lucky.
(out of 4)
This Toronto singer's first full album of what she has called the "old dead guys songbook" – esteemed American jazz composers, such as Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn – is a gem completing the one-time avant-garde rocker's evolution into a jazz singer. She's accompanied by top local players given to scene-stealing solos on winsome arrangements that include a breezy, Latin-inflected "Whatever Lola Wants" and a hip R&B backbeat on "It Ain't Necessarily So." The title track, penned with long-time collaborator Steve MacKinnon, fits neatly with the quirky poetry of classics like "Ode To Billie Joe." Imbued with a sultry rasp that sounds like she's just risen from a century-long slumber, Johnson's joie de vivre means unusually optimistic interpretations of gloomy fare like "Solitude" and "Willow Weep for Me." She's subdued on "I Loves You, Porgy" and "I'll Never Smile Again," but it's not her natural gait. Top Track: A vivid and well-paced "Lush Life."
Globe and Mail
For some, the acid test for Toronto jazz singer (and CBC radio personality) Molly Johnson's standards album will be Duke Ellington's Solitude, in which she evokes the sweetness of Billie Holiday while making this bittersweet tune her own. But to really appreciate Lucky's strengths, focus on the less-standard standards. Johnson may swing hard on Gershwin chestnuts such as It Ain't Necessarily So, but she really flies on songs more familiar as instrumentals, such as If I Were a Bell and Willow Weep for Me, while Ode to Billie Joe (yes, the Bobbie Gentry hit) becomes a stunning hard-bop blues, thanks to pianist/saxophonist Phil Dwyer's Killer Joe-derived arrangement.
Record Collector Magazine
"astutely chosen set of jazz standards delivered with poise and panache..."
/ If You Know Love
"A gorgeous slice of self-penned bohemian retro-jazz....huge crossover appeal."
Evening Standard (London UK)
Toronto's sultry mixed-race chanteuse Molly Johnson has the kind of sweetly sardonic voice that doesn't need glossy studio production or floorshaking beats to sound good. A real woman, who raised a couple of sons while working the tough Canadian nightclub circuit, she wowed Soho a few years back and will be very welcome at this November's London Jazz Festival. Tenorist Colleen Allen and Hammond-organist Doug Riley guest effectively on her new album and the bilingual Triste Souvenirs contains a little accordion but most tracks find Molly relaxing with an empathetic piano-guitar quartet who caress her every note. Molly's lazy time-feel and expressive way with standards (Let's Do It) and originals (Rain) keep everything natural. I'd forgotten how good she is.
Sunday Express UK
Sounding like Billie Holiday reborn, Canadian jazz vocalist Molly Johnson swings her way through some brilliant original numbers and inspired covers. Her slow, near-syncopated take on Cole Porter's Let's Do It marvellously adds to the song's sauciness, while her mastery of bossa nova and French chanson styles is evident in the wonderful original
Canadian singer Molly Johnson has long been recognised as one of her country's greatest voices and she's also enjoyed much success in France. Now, it seems, we in the United Kingdom are finally catching on. After serving time as a disco and pop singer in the '80s and '90s her career as a jazz vocalist began to flourish and her smoky sensual voice enchanted on Molly Johnson (2000) and follow up Another Day (2003). If You Know Love is a welcome re-badging of last years Messin' Around CD that sold so well on import that Universal decided to give it an official UK release. It's easy to see why, as the bulk of the album is made up of compelling songs Johnson wrote, mostly, with long time collaborator Steven MacKinnon and all are perfect dinner jazz companions.
Let's Waste Some Time delivers a cool West Coast vibe over which Johnson slowly unfurls a pliant invitation to a lover with a hint of coquettish Billie Holiday in her delivery. Rain is a beautiful after-hours ballad which, with a hint of keyboard accordion, really hits the spot. Johnson does a fantastic amount of fundraised for AIDS charities in Canada and therefore her cover of Bruce Springsteen's Philadelphia is poignant and really packs emotional punch. On a more playful note Cole Porter's Let's Do It is taken at a slower tempo with Johnson tripping and teasing through the lyrics with much affection. Finally, for those who already own the album, Universal have included bonus track Avignon Blues!
Sun Media (Calgary Sun)
"People come and people go and things change," sings Molly Johnson. She's as good as her words. The Toronto singer-songwriter reinvented herself as a jazz vocalist a few years back. And her third solo release proves it was a change for the better. This dozen-track set captures the Billie Holidayish vocalist in a fittingly playful and wonderfully elastic mood, mixing it up with a tight little combo accented with horns. - Darryl Sterdan
Molly Johnson, as this CD’s title suggests, has been Messin’ Around with various musical genres over her career, including R&B, rock, funk, blues and even disco. She settled very nicely into jazz over the past few years and Messin’ Around continues her latest musical adoption. The playfulness of this CD is what sets it apart from most jazz albums – you can tell that Johnson had a blast recording it. This approach resulted in a jazz album more accessible than most to the general listening public. Johnson shares writing credits on most of the 12 tracks here, with the most outstanding being the bouncy title track and Rain, the R&B-tinged first single. A nice surprise is the inclusion of Bruce Springsteen’s Streets of Philadelphia.
GLOBE AND MAIL
A singer who can wear many styles
Molly Johnson makes her first album for a major label
If, as many in the music industry believe, the future of jazz singing depends on finding the perfect balance between jazz and pop, Molly Johnson seems to have been born for the job. It isn't just that Messin' Around, her third solo album -- and her first for a major label -- covers a wide range of musical styles, from standards to R&B to pop; she sounds utterly at home in each, making the disc sound less like a crossover attempt than a simple reflection of who she is.
For starters, the Toronto native grew up in a jazz environment, "loving it," she says, sitting at a table in the Cameron House on Queen Street in Toronto. "My father's first record [he gave] to me was Birth of the Cool, Miles Davis. Ed Mirvish was an old family friend, and we did Porgy and Bess [she and her siblings were extras], so I sat on that Porgy and Bess set, at five years old, and listened to Summertime and all those incredible songs, every single night. My parents loved that stuff."
But when she decided to pursue a career in music, while her friends thought she should be singing jazz, Johnson had other ideas. Although she sang jazz off and on, where she made a name for herself was singing with the rock bands Alta Moda in the 1980s and Infidels in the 1990s.
"Everyone said, 'Oh, you should start singing jazz now,' " She laughs. "I said, 'You know what? I can do that when I'm older. I don't want to be running around and jumping off amps, wearing funny clothes with a Mohawk, at 50.'"
Given that Johnson is signed with the crossover-conscious label Verve, it's tempting to assume that the record company actively encouraged her to up the pop content on the album. But that's not quite the case.
Johnson and her producer, Scott MacKinnon, cut the album in two weeks, with little interference from Verve. "I think that maybe I scared them off," she says, a mischievous smile on her face.
In fact, although the label made "a couple of suggestions," the only specific request was when one of the label's A&R people, Scott Morin, suggested she cut But Not for Me. Said Johnson: "Sure. I mean, I love singing standards."
Then Morin suggested she bring in flugelhornist Guido Basso for the session. Suddenly, it wasn't just another standard.
"He's awesome," Johnson says of the veteran jazzman. "Man, everything bumps right up when he starts playing. There's a very grown-up thing going when Guido starts playing." She giggles, as if she still can't believe she got to play with the big kids.
The other big record company suggestion came not from Verve, but from France, where Another Day, Johnson's sophomore release from 2002, was a big hit, thanks in large part to the single Melody.
"We sold over 80,000 records in France by leaving on a Thursday night, and being home by Sunday afternoon," she says. "We arrived Thursday night, I woke up, did press all day Friday, did a show Friday night, travelled Saturday, did another show, travelled back to Paris and got on the plane."
So when Jann Olliver, her French label's chief, called with a request late into the recording of Messin' Around, Johnson was more than happy to hear him out.
He suggested Streets of Philadelphia, and at first, Johnson was buffaloed. "Prince I get," she says, and indeed, Messin' Around includes the Purple One's tune Tangerine.
But Bruce Springsteen? "I don't get that," she says. "But the way he said it: 'You work with AIDS.' "
Johnson had tremendous success in Canada raising money and awareness for AIDS charities with the Kumbaya Festival, and Olliver hoped to spark something similar in his country. "The situation in France is bad with AIDS," Johnson says. "There's so much closeted stuff going on, and the politics of AIDS is bad."
So she decided to give it a go. "We played it twice," she says. "I'd never sung it before the first take, and then we did another take. I don't even know which one we ended up using, but it really went down just like that. It was like, okay, there it is. And why mess with it?"
Jazz siren Molly Johnson comes of age on third CD
TORONTO -- When Molly Johnson broke onto the Canadian music scene in the late 1980s and early '90s, it was with a multiracial rock band that challenged the conventions of popular music.
Now as a respected jazz siren, she's bent on battling another set of hurdles.
"I never tell my age, and I'll tell you why: this is the most ageist, sexist business left standing," Johnson says while seated at a downtown tavern where she worked during her rock 'n' roll days with Alta Moda, and later the Infidels.
"When I'm 50, I'll tell everybody how old I am and you'll all go, 'Damn, she look good for 50!"'
"I don't want to sound like an old lady, but frankly, I am ... They still expect you to be 18."
Although she may be getting on in age, the vibrant performer with the corkscrew curls and gap-toothed smile hasn't lost her spunk. She enthusiastically launches into tirades about prejudice, politics and world history.
But these days, Johnson's biggest passion is jazz.
After a slow-burning career as a pop singer, nighclub songstress and organizer of the Kumbaya benefit concerts, the Toronto native has drawn a devoted local jazz following and spawned a surprise audience abroad.
The sultry crooner is big in France - just call her music's Jerry Lewis, she jokes - where her first two solo CDs sold 100,000 copies and she draws frequent invitations to perform.
In turn, Johnson says she's been impressed by a European sensibility she says holds greater respect for tradition and experience.
"As you get older and wise you're something to be loved and cherished," she says of the philosophy overseas.
"Here it's: See ya!" she says in her distinctive rasp.
"It's part of that disposable culture we have here in North America where we just get rid of stuff."
Johnson has had her share of battles to stay in the business. Her struggle to be recognized as a half-black, half-white front woman was not easy, she says.
Modest success in Canada with hits such as Alta Moda's "Julian" and Infidels' "100 Watt Bulb" and "Celebrate" did not follow in the United States and each band dissolved after only one album.
"It was tough going," she says, noting it was particular hard to break through in the more conservative United States.
"When I had my little black, multicultural rock bands we definitely had a lot of issue down there trying to make it happen. Never really happened. I don't want to play the race card, I don't want it to be about race, but it was about race."
All the while, Johnson was nurturing a passion for jazz and the American songbook.
It was the year 2000 when she finally felt bold enough to tackle the genre with her first jazz recording.
Her third solo disc, Messin' Around, hits stores Tuesday with a lively collection of original tunes.
"There are certain songs that I wouldn't have sung back then that I can sing now with relative ease," says Johnson, often compared to jazz legend Billie Holiday.
"I think it's all about credibility in your voice and that you've actually lived some of that stuff.... I always knew that I could sing that stuff when I was older."
If she had to choose between luck or pluck, Molly Johnson chooses pluck. And in the roller-coaster ride of the music business, it’s Johnson’s determination — and inexhaustible enthusiasm — that’s kept her singing for decades.
The Toronto jazz singer already knows the territory. Johnson fronted rock groups Alta Moda and the Infidels before breaking out on her own, has gone through three records labels — two of which caved out from under her — and, at one point, even refinanced her house to pay her musicians. Yet all her stories are coloured with humour, and nearly every sentence is punctuated with an infectious laugh.
“With all the disappointments in the record industry,” she says, “I figured that I made the best record I could, with the musicians I loved. And what the labels do with that, or don’t do with that, is really them. I never took the blame for it.”
Nor did Johnson waste any time when she decided to walk away. When one record deal soured, the defiant songstress found herself stuck.
“I thought, wow, I legally can’t make another record unless it’s for this guy, and I don’t want to make another record for this guy,” she says. “So (I decided) I’m just not going to make any records. It was a choice.”
Johnson instead launched a benefit concert, Kumbaya, an annual star-studded show that raised over $1 million for AIDS in four years. The impetus behind this was a moment of clarity she found in the midst of her career’s madness — she had friends who were dying from the crippling disease. She realized, “You know what? The music business is just a teeny-tiny, frankly silly, part of this world.”
But like many things in life, the moment you don’t need something — it needs you. Johnson was approached by songwriter and producer Steven MacKinnon, who suggested they collaborate.
This partnership bore two albums, to critical acclaim and financial success. Now backed by Universal Music, Johnson released her third solo album Messin’ Around this November.
Sitting now in the Cameron House — in a room her voice fills effortlessly and where she first started singing over 20 years ago — Johnson lights up when she talks about her new release.
“I purposely made this last record a happy record,” she says. “The best way to show that they didn’t get me, they didn’t ruin me, they didn’t kill my spirit, is just make a really happy record. That’s why it’s pink,” she adds with a husky chuckle, “that’s why I’m laughing on it.” - Nina Dragicevic
Canadian singer Molly Johnson has a new CD. It is no accident that Molly Johnson is laughing on the cover of her new CD, Messin' Around, which hits stores tomorrow. "The positive thing on this record was totally planned, because I'd had my ass so royally kicked," said Johnson, a local Toronto legend who has been a serial victim of record-company shenanigans and collapses through the years. "So I wanted to make a happy, fun, sexy record. "I didn't want any ballads -- Rain (the first single) is like the darkest song, and it's about change," added Johnson, who signed with Verve/Universal Music Canada last August. "And if you've seen the jacket, I'm laughing. I fought hard for that. It's important to send a message that I'm okay, I'm more than okay."
Johnson -- who stylistically has moved through R & B, disco, rock, funk and blues before adopting her current jazzy approach -- said she inherited her resilience from her father John, who played professional football for the Philadelphia Eagles back when helmets had leather flaps. But despite that attitudinal link with her dad, Johnson's target audience always has been females."Even when I was in the Infidels and Alta Moda, it was all about the girls," Johnson said.
"It would kill me to write a song that said, 'I ain't nothin' without him.' That's not coming out of my mouth. I'm a happily married woman. I have a gorgeous, intelligent husband (Rob Moore, who recently ran Adam Vaughan's successful campaign for Toronto city council). But honest to God, I was pretty f---ing fabulous before I married him. And don't he know it. "These days I'm really talking to the working moms. It doesn't matter if you're a bank teller or you're working at Dominion, whatever, if you're working and you have children, it is a major guilt-ridden ride of juggling (Johnson has two kids). And I also happen to know that women are the ones who purchase everything -- eggs, underwear, music, boots, laundry detergent."
Johnson has similarities to another local musician, Ron Sexsmith, in this regard -- their fans are deeply loyal, critics generally love them, and yet one wonders why they aren't bigger. "Ron and I are lazy," Johnson said with a laugh. "We're not driven by ego and ambition. We are clasically Canadian in that way. It's more important for us to be writing great songs. We hope lots of people hear them, but the motivation is in the writing."
Messin' Around technically is Johnson's third solo CD. Her first two efforts (released in 2000 and 2003) combined to sell a surprisingly robust 100,000 copies in France. "This is the thing," Johnson said. "People go, 'Oh, you're really big in France.' And I say, 'You know what? So is Jerry Lewis. So let's just keep it all in perspective here.' " By BILL HARRIS --
THE TORONTO STAR - GREG QUILL
After 20 years of near misses, Molly Johnson seems to have landed at exactly the right place at the right time.
The enduringly popular Toronto singer and songwriter, has just been taken under the wing of Ray Danniels and his Toronto-based SRO/Anthem Records, the music label and management empire rock band Rush helped build.
Last night she headlined the official opening of the 20th annual Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival at the Toronto Star Stage in Nathan Phillips Square and delivered one of the warmest and most assured performances of her career for a loving hometown crowd.
Having dispensed with the pop/R&B experiments that brought her to the very brink of international fame — fronting Alta Moda in the 1980s and Juno award-winners Infidels in the 1990s — Johnson is settling in to what she hopes is a long and profitable career as a chanteuse in the classic mould.
Messing Around, a new CD containing smouldering jazz and blues flavoured originals and unusual covers — including a chilling reading of Bruce Springsteen's sobering AIDS lament, "The Streets Of Philadelphia" — will be released worldwide on Anthem/Universal Sept. 16.
"It only took 18 years to win these guys over," Johnson told the Star.
At the start of last night's concert, the singer was presented with a special proclamation by Mayor David Miller commemorating June 23 through July 2 Toronto Jazz Week, and honouring Johnson's contribution to the city's "vibrant arts community." Miller called Johnson "a great singer, a great talent and a great friend."
Of her new record deal, Johnson explained, "I've been hassling Ray Danniels to manage me for most of my professional life, but he was always too busy with Rush. "Then again, 80,000 CDs sold in France is a bit of an attention grabber."
By her own account, her sudden rise to fame in the European adult music market was a series of happy accidents. A French promoter had picked up a copy of one of her CDs at a music trade show in Cannes in 2003, and was so taken with the sweet and smoky voice that she put a song on her answering machine.
"All kinds of people heard it, including the owner of the Pizza Express, a jazz club in Soho, London, who booked me for a showcase," Johnson explained. "That led to a meeting with a French concert promoter, who booked me into this little club in Paris, The New Morning. I went from there to headlining (Paris' premier concert hall) The Olympia within a year."
In fact, Johnson has spent so much time in France meeting the demands of her burgeoning career there that she has become something of a stranger at home, a condition she relieved last night as the festival's opening night star.
Backed by a five-piece band that featured star turns by Toronto flugelhorn and trumpet virtuoso Guido Basso, pianist/organist Andrew Craig and saxophonist/flautist/clarinetist Colleen Allen, Johnson owned the stage from the start of her 90-minute performance.
It's good to see her back in town.
Toronto Jazz Festival Day One
Molly Johnson Quartet & Robi Botos
Concert Review by: Paul J. Youngman
Molly Johnson was introduced and arrived in style; she looked very fit, fashion conscious and as beautiful as ever. Johnson was joined on stage by her regular quartet of Colleen Allen, soprano, alto, tenor saxophone, clarinet and flute, as Johnson said, “Playing everything.” Andrew Craig, piano and keyboards. Mike Downes, acoustic bass and Mark Mclean drums and percussion. There were special guest artists as well, Greg Ross, guitar, Rob Piltch, guitar and Guido Basso, flugelhorn and trumpet.
Molly Johnson is an enchantress; she can work an audience in the fashion of the greats, like Ella, Pearl, Abby, Dinah and Billy. At times, her brash attitude can even lend itself to the defiant style of Nina Simone. Molly Johnson seduces her fans, loving them slowly, teasingly and with ultimate pleasure, making sure to leave them wanting more, a highly coveted skill that all the great lovers possess.
Johnson sings in a very relaxed fashion, she has a smoky, distinct voice that is somewhere in between the raw adrenalin pumping power of blues rock legend Janis Joplin and the instrumental tone of a young Billy Holiday. There were moments during the concert where she reached down into some reserve and boosted the energy level to one that I have never witnessed before. I have seen Johnson perform on numerous occasions, this was a special night. Her trading off of lines with horn player extraordinaire, Guido Basso during “Fool To Fall In Love” was exhilarating. Basso has a full rich tone that matches Johnson’ vocal range perfectly.
Johnson and her band performed 10 songs from the new CD, Let’s Waste Some Time, due out soon on the Verve/ Universal label. The first two songs that the band played were co-composed with Greg Ross, guitarist with the Lenny Kravitz band. They were well written numbers “Messing Around” and “Here With You.” The sound mix took the first three numbers to get it together, harmonies were not working for me and instrument levels were being adjusted on the fly. A sound check during the 15-minute break might be an idea. Ross departed after these first two songs and Guido Basso arrived to a huge round of applause. Other songs from the new CD are “If You Know Love,” “Once Upon A Time,” “Tonight,” “Tangerine,” which had a hip Caribbean flavour to this tune, with nice percussion by Mclean.
Mark Mclean is one of the most skillful musical drummers in support of a vocalist. His superb style may be heard backing vocalist Peter Cincotti and Andy Bey. He can play brushes to swing or to add tasteful effect that compliments the sultry mood that Johnson so wonderfully exudes. He is always one step ahead when improvisation is called for, his drumming is sharp, sensitive and supportive of where other players are going as so wonderfully displayed on the award winning Red Dragonfly CD by Jane Bunnett, Released in 2004 on Blue Note Records.
Two outstanding tunes with hit written all over them, “My Oh My” and “Diamond In My Hand” from the self-titled Molly Johnson CD released in 2001 by Marquis Records were performed to the delight of the audience. Rob Piltch was a guest artist on the first CD and his playing at this evening’s performance is splendid. Piltch is a minimalist, in a two bar solo he can say more than some guitarist’s do in a lifetime. A jazz guitar player who is mesmerizing in his tonal clarity with chord structure that is simply brilliant.
On the song “Sticks and Stones” Basso on trumpet and Allen on tenor sax played some magnificent solos. Andrew Craig played an organ solo that was really swinging. Craig would switch to electronic keyboard and piano through out the show. This is a tight rhythm section with Mike Downes firmly in control. Downes is the backbone that keeps it all together and lays the foundation that the other players can perform upon.
The Molly Johnson big band played an exiting set that was close to two hours long with one rip-roaring encore number. The finale was a song I did not recognize, it may have been one of the new songs, it sounded incredible, like a big band blowing to win the battle.
I see great things for Molly Johnson and the benefactors will be her loving and loved fans.
Review by Paul J. Youngman – KJA - Jazz Advocate
For more information: http://www.thelivemusicreport.com
2006 Jazz Winnipeg Festival
McPhillips Street Station
June 25, 2006
Looking very elegant in a shimmering knee-length skirt, matching high heels, and white tank top, vocalist Molly Johnson delighted a sold-out crowd on the final day of the 2006 Jazz Winnipeg Festival.
Johnson may not be a familiar name to American jazz fans, but she is well-known in her native country and is quite popular in France.
She began with “But Not For Me”, a tune she recorded for her latest album with trumpet and flugelhorn legend, Guido Basso. A latin-tinged ending included some “commentary” from saxophonist Colleen Allen.
The vocalist then showed her Billie Holiday side with a rendition of “If You Know Love”.
Throughout the evening Johnson engaged in good-natured banter with the crowd. When introducing one tune (“Let’s Waste Some Time”) she said, in self-deprecatory fashion, “I got to do this lyric thing and I’m a bit of an air head. I need teleprompters.”
The aforementioned song had a bossanova flavor to it, while the tenor solo was reminiscent of Stan Getz and his very sublime sense of phrasing.
Drummer Mark McLean arranged Prince’s “Tangerine”, which included a strong soprano solo by Allen. McLean’s crisp playing reminded one of the fire and soul of the late Billy Higgins. The reedist, meanwhile, displayed solid intonation on a notoriously difficult instrument to play. Allen and pianist Andrew Craig also contributed backup vocals.
“Diamond in My Hand”, was described by Johnson as “my country tune”, and featured some vocal interplay with Craig.
The sextet’s performance was tight, especially in the ensemble playing; the affinity and sympathy they had for each other was most evident.
Following a standing ovation, Johnson returned for an encore (“Summertime”) with only bass and drums in support. Bassist Mike Downes, who is from Winnipeg, was given an opportunity to display his considerable chops.
The rest of the group returned and the evening closed with a blues that the pianist composed while “riding in the van in France”, according to Johnson. Everyone had a chance to “blow”, including guitarist Rob Piltch and Allen again, this time on clarinet, whose solo evoked some spontaneous applause from the packed house.
"One of Toronto's best-kept jazz secrets...she is a proud Canadian who looks for original songs, vehicles for adult emotions... It's the individual timbre of her voice that elevates them." - Evening Standard, London UK
Molly Johnson rocked theToronto Downtown Jazz Festival. ... the singer was audacious, the applause boisterous and history was made. Johnson became the first Canadian female vocalist in the festival's 17-year-history to sell out a show on the mainstage.
- Toronto Star
"Once again, Johnson's warm, liquid voice lovingly embraces each song." - Toronto Sun
"Molly Johnson has followed up her excellent self-titled CD of two years ago with another of understated elegance." - Windsor Star
"Local heroine Molly Johnson is in great form on this disc...with her rich blend of blues and jazz confidently displayed. Flashes of Dinah Washington, Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday (whose "Don't Explain" is a treat here) colour the naturally warm textures of her voice...She's full of drama wit and heartache... surely one of the records of the year." - Geoff Chapman, Toronto Star
"A lovely voice, and the elegant arrangements give room for her to stretch it…" eye Weekly (Toronto)
"Instantly Appealing" North Toronto Post
"Johnson's singing is smooth, and soothing in a way, and her distinctive voice keeps you going back for more." - Winnipeg Free Press
"Johnson transfixed the sold-out crowd… with a simple, powerful musical recital." Winnipeg Sun
"Johnson leads a snappy lounge-lizard combo through an esoteric set of swank classics ("Summertime"), inspired pop covers…, and torchy tuneful originals (the perfectly titled "Sweet Sublime") that hold their own against the competition." - Winnipeg Sun
Molly Johnson, O.C
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Mother, Singer, Songwriter, Artist, Philanthropist,
Molly Johnson has earned her reputation as one of Canada's greatest voices. She has rocked standing-room only audiences in nightclubs and bars from coast-to-coast as a pop artist, and seduced the patrons of salons and lounges with her luscious interpretations of jazz and blues standards.
She has regaled royalty during a private command performance aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia before the Prince and late Princess of Wales, as well as having performed for Nelson Mandela and Quincy Jones. She made history at the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival, becoming the first Canadian female vocalist in the festival's 17-year-history to sell out a show on the mainstage.
Molly started the Kumbaya Foundation and Festival, raising awareness and funds for people living with HIV/AIDS, and she continues to work with countless other charitable organizations every year. In 2008 she was honoured with becoming an Officer of The Order Of Canada.
On November 11th, 2008 Molly released her fourth full length album; a long awaited record of standards entitled LUCKY via Universal Music Canada & Universal Music France. LUCKY won the 2009 JUNO Award for Best Vocal Jazz Album. Molly also received the 2009 National Jazz Award for Best Female Vocalist.Molly is the host of CBC Radio 2's weekend morning program.
Molly Johnson’s voice evokes the aura of dark, smoky night clubs of a bygone era. It speaks to an emotional depth that few vocalists in any genre ever reach. Like the woman behind it, it is a voice filled with humour, joy, surprise, sassiness and, of course, love. It is also a voice that has long deserved a wider audience. The product of a white mother and a black father, she is the youngest of three and was raised along her cousin Ron in downtown Toronto.
Johnson’s story starts in the mid-sixties when as a young grade schooler, she and her brother, Clark Johnson, were tapped by legendary Toronto producer Ed Mirvish to appear in Porgy and Bess at the Royal Alex Theatre. In time Porgy and Bess was followed by South Pacific, Finian’s Rainbow and other now-classic musicals. The budding child star was soon enrolled in the National Ballet School as she desired to become a choreographer. Not too far from school was the Colonial Tavern where two friends of Taborah Johnson, Molly’s older sister, Shawn Jackson and Dominic Troiano (later of James Gang and the Guess Who), routinely held court, playing set after set of R&B fuelled by a number of songs that Jackson and Troiano had written.
Molly was taken with the idea of writing songs and, while ballet school was cool, the future chanteuse began to think of herself as a potential songwriter. By the age of fifteen, Molly was fronting a disco band with the ignominious name Chocolate Affair. The group lasted just over a year. “I couldn’t stand singing ‘Love to Love You Baby,’” grimaces Johnson. “I wanted to perform original material.” Chocolate Affair was followed in 1979 by Alta Moda (Italian for “High Style”), a funky art rock group formed by Johnson in conjunction with Norman Orenstein that was a seminal part of Toronto’s dynamic Queen Street scene. Signed to Sony, Alta Moda released a solitary self titled album from which the single “Julian” became an FM hit. The core of Alta Moda morphed into the harder rocking Infidels who proceeded to sign with IRS, releasing an eponymously titled album in 1991 from which both “100 Watt Bulb” and “Celebrate” attained domestic hit status.
While Johnson was trying to make headway in the world of rock and roll with both Alta Moda and Infidels, she began a parallel career as a jazz singer. “I started singing the American song book because I was trying to learn how to write a melody and write a good pop tune,” explains Johnson. “There wasn’t a lot of melody in Alta Moda. It was more vibe and attitude. I thought I should go to the masters, the originators of popular music — Gershwin, Ellington and the rest of the Tin Pan Alley greats.” By 1992, IRS Records had unfortunately lost interest in the Infidels. Despondent over her second record deal gone bad, Johnson turned her substantial energies to mounting a star-laden Molly benefit concert that she dubbed Kumbaya, raising money for charities working with HIV and AIDs. “Kumbaya was in direct retaliation,” stresses Johnson with not a small bit of rancour. “I could either sit in my basement and get really bitter and grumpy and freaked out or I could open up my phone book and do that Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney thing and put on a big show!” For the next four years Kumbaya was an annual event, raising over one million dollars to help battle the ravages of AIDs.
By the late 1990s Johnson had started her family and, being burned twice by record companies, was contemplating giving up on the music business. “I wasn’t really up for making another record,” she declares. “I was just burnt out. I thought there’s gotta be something else I can do.” Into the void that had become Johnson’s career stepped Toronto songwriter and producer Steve MacKinnon who suggested that Molly try and write some songs with him. The partnership proved to be fruitful and after a dozen or so songs were past the gestation stage, MacKinnon declared, “I think we have a record.” The self-titled jazz-pop CD Molly Johnson, recorded in MacKinnon’s living room and featuring a guest appearance by French jazz legend Stephan Grappelli, was issued to critical acclaim in 2000. Unfortunately, Johnson’s record company, Song Corp., went bankrupt shortly after the disc’s release, leaving Molly once again high and dry. Three years later, Johnson recorded her second jazz-pop release, Another Day, which through a series of fortuitous events led to her becoming a bonafide star in France.
Messin’ Around, Johnson’s next release, was also her first in a new relationship with yet another record label, Universal Music Canada. Recorded in fourteen days with a core band consisting of her long standing collaborators drummer Mark McLean, bassist Mike Downes, flute and saxophonist Colleen Allen, guitarist Rob Pilch and pianist Andrew Craig, Johnson opted to record her vocals “live” off the floor alongside the band, eschewing overdubs altogether. “To me that is what a good jazz record should be,” stresses Johnson. “It was all in the performance. We didn’t mess with it. We left it as it happened. My thing is with every song I should be able to stand and sing it alone with no accompaniment and it should work. That’s how I test songs to see if they hold up.” The result was an extraordinarily engaging mature pop record for a sophisticated audience as Johnson skilfully integrated her well honed melodic skills, artful Tin Pan Alley style lyrics, jazz phrasing and overall pop sensibility. A few new staples in Molly’s recording career came out of this album: An original entitled “If You Know Love”, a bossa- influenced song by Marc Jordan entitled “Let’s Waste Some Time”, a French chanson entitled “Tristes Souvenir” and Johnson’s quirky cover of Prince’s little known “Tangerine” – an ersatz hybrid of pop, funk and jazz that should get most listeners dancing around their living rooms full of unabashed joy and wonder that music can be so invigorating, fun and life affirming. Messin’ Around’s two most powerful performances, the Johnson-MacKinnon penned “Rain” and a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” are harrowing in their emotional impact.
The successes of Messin’ Around led to a busy touring period for Molly, including another trip to France, a Canadian tour, and showcases in the U.S. In 2007, the end of the promotion of Messin’ Around coincided with a truly huge honour – Molly’s induction as an Officer of the Order of Canada. This rare distinction was given to Molly to recognize her philanthropic work for a variety of causes and for her international contributions to the arts.
Fast forward a year and Molly embarks on another career milestone – her solo debut at the venerable Massey Hall. Leading up to this concert, Molly has partnered with a new record label, Montreal’s A440 Entertainment, who have in turn partnered with Universal Music Canada and Universal Music France to release her first album of jazz standards, simply entitled Lucky. (In stores November 11th) Lucky was recorded in 3 days this Summer with an all-star group of Canadian jazz musicians including pianist/saxophonist Phil Dwyer, drummers Mark McLean and Ben Riley, and bassist Mike Downs. Aside from the Johnson-MacKinnon penned title track and the Bobbie Gentry 1960’s hit “Ode to Billie Joe”, Lucky features classic jazz standards from the great American Songbook, interpreted as only Molly Johnson could. From the epic power and sadness of “Lush Life” and “I Loves You Porgy”, to the soulful renderings of Ellington classics “I Got It Bad” and “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You”, Lucky is a tour-de-force recording that sees Molly Johnson reach a new level of interpretive and artistic growth and maturity.
painting by Charles Pachter