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The jazzman cometh

From Super Rugby stadiums to the theatre stage in Haiti and the ethio-jazz clubs of Addis Ababa, Lucien Johnson and his saxophone have performed in many different places far from his Wellington home town.

The musician performs in Gisborne next week with the Lucien Johnson Quartet.

Lucien Johnson might not be a familiar name, but the sound of his saxophone has featured on albums by the Black Seeds, Hollie Smith, The Phoenix Foundation, Lawrence Arabia, Lord Echo and The Yoots.

He's also played across Europe and many other exotic spots around the world with respected artists such as Mulatu Astatke and Sun Ra bassist Alan Silva. But he only came to the woodwind instrument as compromise from playing the piano.

It wasn't until a high school teacher took the young Lucien to a jazz concert that “something clicked”, and he fully immersed himself into the instrument, although at the cost of his school marks.

“What I was attracted to in jazz was this defiant spirit. And later when I went to jazz school, I found that had been all sucked away from it.”

Fascinated by the origins of jazz, “at some point I started thinking ‘well this is actually Black music, this is music derived from Africa, and I know virtually nothing about it . . . the least I could do was actually learn about it'.”

This interest led him to places as far flung as Haiti, where he worked with voodoo drummers and immersed himself into the traditions of Haitian rhythms.

“There were about 20 or 30 basic rhythms and each of these rhythms had a definite and distinct meaning.”

Some rhythms even directly represented the Haitian revolution.

Citing his own attraction to the “whole harmonic and melodic universe” of Ethiopian music, Johnson then examined how Western musicians recreated their own Ethio-influenced music. Of which he had first-hand experience, even accompanying Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke onstage during his 2016 Wellington Jazz Festival appearance.

On the back of that he “hooked up with Mulatu again in Ethiopia and hung out with him quite a bit and played one night at his club. He said to the band, ‘Do you mind if this guy gets up with you?' and they of course say yes because everyone in Ethiopia does what Mulatu says.

“Everyone was quite astounded that here was this tall, white dude who could play Ethiopian music.” — RNZ

Presented by Musica Viva Gisborne in association with Chamber Music New Zealand, the Lucien Johnson Quartet performs at Tairawhiti Museum on Thursday, August 6 at 7.30pm. Adults $20, students $10. Tickets available at the door. Supported by Deane Endowment Trust, CNZ Music Up Close.

TALL WHITE DUDE ON SAX: Award-winning saxophonist Lucien Johnson will perform with the Lucien Johnson Quartet which includes Jonathan Crayford (piano), Tony Callwood (double bass) and Cory Champion (drums) in Gisborne next week. Picture supplied