Graham Reid | | 5 min read
On the totem pole of under-acknowledged New Zealand musicians, composer-saxophonist Lucien Johnson would be very near the top. KNown and respected by musicians, but only acknowledged by those who have caught him in concert or on his recordings.
As we write his acclaimed Strasbourg 1518 collaboration with choreographer Lucy Markinovich is wowing audiences at Circa in Wellington for its blend of music, dance and story-telling.
Locally he has played on albums by Lawrence Arabia, the Phoenix Foundation, Hollie Smith and others, but it is his international career which is doubly impressive.
Spending most of the 2000s in Paris he connected with the avant-garde scene but also the likes of Ethiopian multi-instrumentalist Mulatu Astatke (and played with him in Addis Ababa after accompanying him at his 2016 concert at the Wellington Jazz Festival), created music for theatre production and back home in New Zealand has won awards for his theatre, composition and sound design projects.
He played in India with a circus troupe, in Haiti where he learned their unique drumming tradition and explored the Afrofuturist sounds.
He has composed for solo piano, string quartets and orchestras, but also helms his own jazz groups.
His latest album is the enormously impressive Wax///Wane, a jazz album which has touchstones in the Coltranes' spiritual music, Sun Ra, Sonny Rollins and evocative soundtracks.
Time then for Lucien Johnson to answer some jazz questions . . .
The first piece of music, jazz or otherwise, which really affected you was . . ?
Coltrane’s “My Favourite Things”. There is something so joyous and ecstatic that attracted me, as well as a kind of whirlwind voodoo fervour. I went off Coltrane for many years but then a couple of years ago was on a long haul flight and had no movies I wanted to see. I went to the jazz playlist and found My Favourite Things. I ended up listening to it on loop for 11 hours. I found what I liked about his music again.
When did you first realise this jazz thing was for you?
I was about 15 and I went to a concert where Roger Sellers was playing drums. It totally blew me away. I decided then and there.
What one piece of music would you play to a 15-year old into rock music to show them, 'This is jazz, and this is how it works'?
Maybe Mingus’s Haitian Fight Song. Or Albert Ayler’s The Truth is Marching In. No need for subtlety in this instance!
Time travel allows you go back to experience great jazz. You would go to . . ?
I mean going right back to New Orleans as early as possible would be pretty wild. I feel like I can picture most modern jazz, but not so much this. Also being at the Five Spot when Ornette hit New York would be pretty special.
Which period of Miles Davis' career do you most relate to, and why: the acoustic Fifties; his orchestrated albums with Gil Evans; the acoustic bands, the fusion of the late Sixties; street funk of the Seventies or the Tutu album and beyond in the Eighties . . .
It’s so hard because there are albums which I adore of Miles. I’m glad I don’t play trumpet because I don’t know how I’d deal with his influence. I think Milestones is perhaps the best bop album of all time. I love Blue Moods.
On the Corner is like a blueprint for contemporary music making. His “lost quintet” is incredible, wild, free playing. I think ultimately though his soundtrack for the French film “l'ascenseur pour l'échafaud” is my favourite. The influence of Paris on his music, on his artistry, is not fully recognised.
Any interesting, valuable or just plain strange musical memorabilia at home?
I have quite a few strange musical instruments, mainly because I do quite a bit of music for theatre and dance. Don’t want to give away all my secrets though! I am particularly fond of my 1923 Curved Soprano saxophone though.
The best book on the jazz life you have read is . . .
Murakami’s “South of the border, West of the sun”
If you could get on stage with anyone it would be . . . (And you would play?)
For me the relationships you build with musicians over long periods of time are more important than anything else musically. So if I said Thelonious Monk or someone that would be meaningless. I’d love to play with my two Japanese buddies I met in Paris, Makoto Sato and Itaru Oki. Maybe we’d improvise a set with a buto dancer like Min Tanaka. Sadly Oki passed late last year. It was a very sad moment.
The three films you'd insist anybody watch because they might understand you better are . . .
Anything by Tarkovsky or Bergmann. Nobody can understand those films so they’re not going to help them understand me either!
The last CD or vinyl album you bought was . . . (And your most recent downloads include . . .)
I can’t remember the last one but the Danish pianist Soren Kjaegaard’s trio with Andrew Cyrille has been a big favourite recently.
One jazz standard you wished you had written . . .
The Single Petal of a Rose by Duke Ellington
The poster, album cover or piece of art could you live with on your bedroom forever would be . . .
I love some of the posters we’ve made for our theatre shows, Strasbourg 1518 is a beauty. I love the cover art Julien Dyne made for my album “Wax///Wane”.
Three non-jazz albums for a desert island would be . . ?
I mean on a desert island I think I’d be content just to listen to the waves and the trees and the birds. Three albums would just end up deeply pissing me off.
Your dream band of musicians (living or dead) would be . . ?
I’m just going to be quite random here. Tony Allen on drums, Claude Debussy on the piano, Charles Mingus on bass and Lester Bowie on trumpet. I’ve got to be honest, I don’t think this band would work.
And finally, is there a track on your most recent album you would love people to hear. And, if so, why that one?
Magnificent Moon. I think there’s something very peaceful about it.