Album review

Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat – ‘Worry Not’

Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat – Worry Not 
(Self-released. Album review by Adrian Pallant)

The last fifteen, pandemic-dominated months have undoubtedly pulled focus on our mercurial emotions. So the premise of debut release Worry Not, from Leeds-based tenorist/composer Emma Johnson and quintet, resonates all the more loudly. As Peter Whittingham Award winners, their recording has been funded by Help Musicians, to whom Emma offers her gratitude, alongside a specific dedication to “the brilliant women I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by. They have helped me immeasurably, with worries big and small… and I am a better human than I would be without them”.

So, coupled with that tranquil vista along a smooth-as-glass lake’s surface, should we expect a soporific sequence of unruffled ambience? No, not a bit of it! Instead, this sanguine album of original, contemporary jazz – influenced, in part, by cinematic scores – glistens with a mostly rhythmic fervour. You, too, may wonder: ‘Gravy Boat?’ – but it’s not dressed up any more than a random, Yorkshire-inspired ruse to avoid band-name punnery or cliché, though apparently doesn’t escape gig introductions such as ‘Gravy Train’, ‘Groovy Boat’, even ‘Motor Boat’ (you get the picture).

Emma Johnson’s crew on this carefree cruise comprises electric guitarist Fergus Vickers, pianist Richard Jones, double bassist Angus Milne and drummer Steve Hanley – the latter’s full-kit resonance especially key to this quintet’s joyous spirit, and encountered in boisterous block-chord opener Setting Sail. Johnson is an eloquent melodicist, her themes often stated closely in tandem with guitarist Vickers before individual imaginings are seized by the gusts of improvisation; and her strong saxophonic style, minus vibrato, is consistently assured. Richard Jones is no passive pianist in this ensemble, frequently setting the groove alongside bassist Milne, as heard in Vertical Planes’ prominent dive-and-resurface figures and the vaguely folksong-imbued journeying of Fully Fledged.

The leader’s penchant for melody in Interlude perhaps points to her filmic interests – maybe a taste of more expansive, conceptual projects to come – before the alternating patterns of bass-buoyed Waterlogged (despair, then hope?) are played out with a blend of spice and sensitivity. Here, Jones’ searching pianism is reminiscent of the great Ivo Neame; and Johnson’s arrangement shines, her memorable, stated tune seamlessly folding out and then back in after extemporisation.

A beauteous serenity pervades the simply oscillating piano motion of Hold Me Tight, where sax and echoic, ascending guitar seemingly support each other with interwoven melodies and textures – and the azure-sky imagery of promise is reflected in its rippled calm. Picking up that theme, the zephyr of encouragement and expectation blows through title track Worry Not, heralded by Hanley’s satisfying opening fill and taken higher by Vickers’ crisp, soft-rock guitar tone – but at the heart, as always, is the purity of its tenor theme and subsequent improvisation.

Originally released as a single, closing track Sun Stones offers a jaunty, shuffling burst of ‘east coast cool’ (video shot on the glistening beach of Flamborough Head – see below), Johnson basking in her bountiful tenor explorations and Jones’ angular piano leading to its final, Balkan-tinted celebration.

Though the foundation of this zesty debut is a reassuring catharsis in the face of turmoil, it’s also both exciting and entirely possible to imagine Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat (and, indeed, its leader’s own technique) progressing with harder-edged abandon into more challenging, wind-swept open seas. Collectively, the quintet demonstrates the required creative fortitude and finesse – no worries on that front!

Worry Not is released on Friday 2 July 2021

LINKS: Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat on Bandcamp
Emma Johnson’s website

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