Saxophonist Emma Johnson has just released her debut album Worry Not alongside her Leeds-based quintet, Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat. Featuring Fergus Vickers on guitar, Richard Jones on piano, Angus Milne on double bass and Steve Hanley on drums, the album is a cinematic experience full of warmth, and a touch of northern soul. As Johnson puts it, ‘Written after a house flood and on the brink of the pandemic, the album (and the year awaiting it's creation) encapsulates a process of having worries, acknowledging and dealing with them, and allowing them to wash away.’ This sense of letting go, of continuous movement forward, and of acceptance, is beautifully conveyed throughout Worry Not. As a debut album from an up-and-coming female jazz artist on the northern scene, Worry Not really allows Johnson’s compositional voice to shine through, managing to both comfort and challenge the listener. The tracks are extremely cohesive as a journey, yet different enough to provide variety. This set of works feature catchy melodies, insightful solos, a continuous sense of movement brought through interesting grooves, and irregular rhythms which keep the audience on their toes. After such a long wait for the recording of this album, Worry Not’s execution and message do not disappoint.
‘There is a brilliant balance between solo improvisation and ensemble playing on this album - the solos feel satisfyingly long in narrative, and yet never self-indulgent.’
The album opens with ‘Setting Sail’, an adequate title for the beginning of any album, but a particularly inspiring opening for any debut. Immediately the warm, upbeat groove and interesting sax melody arrests the listener, grabbing our attention and creating a sense of movement which later comes to typify the album. Johnson’s compositional style reminds me of other northern jazz groups such as Wandering Monster - both bands have a warmth and soulfulness, yet also challenge expectations and rely on great grooves to move their music forward. The call and response between Jones on piano and drummer Hanley on this track is exceptional, creating a really intense musical space which sets the bar high for the rest of the album. The sensitive and responsive playing between all five musicians is really incredible on this album, as they adapt and develop each other’s themes and ideas. On tracks such as ‘Sun Stones’ this is embodied by the band, as they move between tight ensemble playing and solos which are complimented by others’ accompanying choices.
‘This sense of letting go, of continuous movement forward, and of acceptance, is beautifully conveyed throughout Worry Not.’
Worry Not is an album which truly allows every individual musician to shine - and it would be an injustice to the audience if these great musicians weren’t showcased individually. On tracks like ‘Waterlogged’ and ‘Sun Stones’, double bassist Milne and guitarist Vickers reveal their own artistic voices through the intro, and on tracks like ‘Worry Not’ pianist Jones does the same through a beautiful outro. There is a brilliant balance between solo improvisation and ensemble playing on this album - the solos feel satisfyingly long in narrative, and yet never self-indulgent. The laid back intro groove on ‘Waterlogged’ provided by Milne sets the tone for the rest of the track, allowing there to be constant movement and yet a thoughtful and pensive quality too. Similarly, Vickers’ guitar intro on ‘Sun Stones’ foreshadows the band’s slow build into Hanley’s solo much later where he completely shreds on drums. The ensemble playing is so tight on tracks like ‘Sun Stones’, allowing the audience to feel at ease in an upbeat musical setting which is usually very intense.
‘Johnson’s compositional style reminds me of other northern jazz groups such as Wandering Monster - both bands have a warmth and soulfulness, yet also challenge expectations.’
Many of the album’s tracks move through different feels, creating that perfect balance between complication and comfort, challenge and satisfaction, tension and release - a very difficult artistic balance to strike. As Johnson puts it, the album ‘tackles themes of stress and worry and the process of overcoming those things to find a sense of calm. The imagery uses a lake setting and various weathers as a parallel to the coming and going of these emotions’. This thematic choice which runs throughout the album provides a sense of cohesion and clarity which adds to the emotional journey of the listener, and explains the fluctuation between different feelings and emotional centres. Tracks like ‘Vertical Planes’, ‘Fully Fledged’ and ‘Worry Not’ all provide a comfort and warmth which are welcome changes to tracks such as ‘Hold Me Tight’ which edge towards a sense of worry or lament. Every track seems to move through a plethora of emotional spheres, even if they tend towards one emotion - this ability to communicate such sensitivity through music is inspiring, and is strongly aided by the grooves which constantly drive the band forward.
‘Many of the album’s tracks move through different feels, creating that perfect balance between complication and comfort, challenge and satisfaction, tension and release.’
Worry Not is an album typified by musical sensitivity, incredible responsiveness, and strong individual artistic voices. Johnson’s sax melodies hold the album together, weaving a sense of narrative between each track and creating a cohesive sound which is both warm and musically refreshing. As a band, Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat strike the perfect balance between listening and expressing - each individual musician is given the space to improvise on this album, and yet it’s the points of connection between its members which truly bring out the beauty of these solos. Combining bluesy influences with modern jazz and even some hard bop, Johnson and her band forge a new sound which blends many different ideas into a cohesive new voice - what a soothing and satisfying listen!