Aubrey Johnson Boldly Breaks The Rules


Aubrey Johnson’s leader debut, Unraveled, includes sextet arrangements of standards and four original compositions.

(Photo: Carolina Mama)

During the past decade, vocalist Aubrey Johnson has explored different chambers of her artistry and performed with an array of musicians, including singers Bobby McFerrin and Sara Serpa, as well as Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra. Johnson’s leader debut, Unraveled (Outside In)—a program featuring original compositions and new sextet arrangements of standards—takes listeners on a dramatic journey through her intriguing aesthetic.

While earning a master’s degree from New England Conservatory, where she studied with pianist Frank Carlberg and vocalist Dominique Eade, Johnson discovered the freedom that comes with abandoning certain musical norms. Consequently, Unraveled shimmers with harmonic wanderlust. “I do a lot of modulating to different key centers, and never hold myself to the idea that I have to come back to where I started,” she said.

Her lyrics reflect that freedom, too. She explained that when she’s writing a piece, the melody and lyric often materialize in tandem—but only for the first phrase. “That’s the magic inspiration moment,” she said, adding that “rational-minded” compositional work quickly follows.

Johnson—who teaches at Berklee College of Music, Montclair State University and Queens College—often follows a maxim: “While I have an understanding of the rules, I should never feel like I have to adhere to them.”

That concept emerges on “These Days.” Featuring lyrics written by Johnson’s brother Gentry, the track illustrates her gift for crafting a melody to pair with an existing lyric. “I pressed ‘record’ on my phone and improvised the melody,” Johnson recalled. “It didn’t matter that the lyric didn’t always rhyme or have a specific meter.”

But a full-hearted embrace of her individualism hasn’t come easily. As a young working artist, Johnson clashed with an identity that didn’t match her sound. Her soprano range wasn’t an ideal fit for alto-centric big band charts, and she struggled with expectations of how she ought to sing. Still, she found ways to work. Her uncle, the keyboardist Lyle Mays (1953–2020), frequently recruited her to participate in his projects, championing her talents. One of his observations altered her self-perception: “He said, ‘You have this huge palette. You should write for your range—for all these different tone colors you can create.’”

Nearing graduation, Johnson encountered a Craigslist post for a world folk band calling for a multilingual soprano who improvised. “I was like, ‘Wow, sounds like me,’” recalled Johnson, who sings in English, Portuguese and Japanese on Unraveled. Through that band, she met violinist Tomoko Omura, who plays on seven of the album’s tracks, including her composition “Voice Is Magic.” “We bonded over being the two women in the band and the two improvisers,” Johnson explained.

After touring, they began playing together in Boston when Johnson’s trumpet player couldn’t make her leader dates. “I adapted the parts for [Omura] ... and thought—I don’t need to play with anyone else,” said Johnson, who revels in the violinist’s textural versatility.

The two artists continued nurturing their bond after Johnson moved to New York. “Aubrey is a strong, confident bandleader who cares about each band member deeply,” Omura said. “She is very specific with what kind of sound she likes ... and is not afraid to tell us when the sound is not the way she wants. She makes the band feel comfortable to express honest feelings and thoughts.”

Nowadays, Johnson serves as a mentor to her students, empowering them to seek what’s special about their voices, sharing enduring advice: “Stay open to going off the beaten path.” DB

This story originally was published in the February 2021 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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