Feature/Interview

NZ Saxophonist Lucien Johnson (new album ‘Wax///Wane’)

New Zealand saxophonist Lucien Johnson tells Rob Adams about his musical journeying ahead of the release on 1 April of a new digital album, Wax///Wane.

Lucien Johnson. Publicity Photo

Lucien Johnson knows the value of preparation. When the saxophonist from New Zealand was invited to guest with Ethiopian jazz pioneer, pianist Mulatu Astatke, at Wellington Jazz Festival, he spent a long time studying the Ethiopian style beforehand. The gig went well and Astatke returned the compliment by inviting Johnson to play with his band again, this time at his club, the African Village in Addis Ababa.

Suspicious of this visitor, Astatke’s band fired up a tune without telling Johnson what it was, although the keyboard player gave him the key, B flat. Johnson recognised the tune as one he’d learned from a recording by Ethiopian saxophonist Getachew Mekurya and played it exactly like Mekurya had. The band and audience couldn’t believe what they were hearing and Johnson was even invited to the Ethiopian Minister of Culture’s house the following day for lunch.

Any thoughts of cultural exchanges, or even another gig, resulting from this were dashed when the Minister spent virtually the entire meal working out a logging deal with another guest and ignoring Johnson. But Johnson enjoyed the experiences with Astatke and his band.

This is one of many stories Johnson, who releases his latest album, Wax///Wane, on Deluge Records on 1 April, has gathered in an eventful life. The native of Pukerua Bay, north of Wellington, spent much of his twenties living and working in and out of Paris, meeting and playing with musicians he knew from recordings but never imagined he’d be sharing stages with when he left for Europe at twenty-two.

“If you come from New Zealand, when you’re young anywhere else seems extremely exciting and desirable,” says Johnson, who has worked in the UK with Wellington-based Scottish drummer John Rae’s band, The Troubles. “I talked myself into an English teaching job in Paris and stayed with a friend of a friend for a few days, then was in some hostels before finding a flat in the 11th arrondissement. My French was really bad but after a year or so it got much better and before long I was fluent.”

As he started to meet people, Johnson, who grew up in a musical family, was able to find work as a musician. He played in brasseries and gravitated towards theatre work, including a clown troupe, with whom he toured India. Another theatre gig took him to Haiti, where he spent four months and contracted malaria but also got to play with voodoo drummers.

Back in Paris he started to mingle with American and Japanese musicians, hanging out with drumming legend and long-time Paris resident Sunny Murray, pianist Bobby Few and saxophonist Steve Potts and playing in drummer John Betsch’s band. The brilliant Japanese drummer Makoto Sato introduced Johnson to free jazz bass titan Alan Silva, of Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and Albert Ayler fame, and they formed a trio, going on to record the album Stinging Nettles.

“Playing and recording with a musician of Alan’s stature was a real honour for me and meeting and gaining the respect of these American players who were of the 1960s and 1970s generation who had settled in Paris was amazing,” he says. “But it was often a struggle to pay the rent and after six years, I decided to return home.”

In Wellington he joined a band that toured the U.S. and Europe every year and got a taste of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. He then completed a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Victoria University and went on to compose music for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the New Zealand Dance Company while making music under his own name. His album West of the Sun, which was released on Japanese label Wonderful Noise, was shortlisted for New Zealand’s Jazz Album of the Year title in 2017.

Johnson’s travels and experiences led to him becoming the go-to musician for festival collaborations back home, which is how he came to work with Mulatu Astatke, pianist Marilyn Crispell and bassist Barre Phillips, among others.

Wax///Wane, he says, is the first album he has made in a really mature musical style and he’d like to think it marks the beginning of being able to concentrate exclusively on making his own music.

Setting his tenor saxophone in an intriguing line-up – vibes, harp, bass, drums and percussion – has enabled Johnson to capture the dream-like quality he wanted to convey. The six compositions on the album reflect the natural surroundings of his life by the sea but also contain the energy and urgency of city living.

“I’d definitely like to record more with this group,” he says. “I think there is something special and unique in this sound. I’d love to tour more too when the world gets back to normal. We did a ten-concert tour of New Zealand last year and have another bunch of arts festivals lined up later this year. I’d also love to bring this music to the UK and Europe sometime.”

Lucien Johnson’s Wax///Wane is a digital release at the moment and is available on Bandcamp and all major streaming services.

LINK: Lucien Johnson’s website

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