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  • Jonathan Widran

MARCUS JOHNSON, Quarantine Sessions

While the first year of the pandemic was stressful and anxiety filled for all of us, it was especially challenging for musicians and artists whose livelihood depends on the opportunity to perform live for audiences at clubs and festival slates and on tour. Amazingly, many artists took advantage of their down time from the stage and road to create unique, in the moment weekly streaming experiences (ranging from informal Facebook Live sessions to more elaborate technologically advanced productions on various platforms). Some also took to the studio, recording great works that would never have existed without the COVID-era lockdown and slow evolution back to live performing.

Veteran pianist/composer Marcus Johnson’s infectious, high spirited and delightfully freewheeling Quarantine Sessions is truly one of these unexpected masterpieces, an eight song romp with his trio of eight years (bassist Antone “Chooky” Caldwell and drummer Chris “Biscuit” Bynum) culled from the fantastic array of streaming performances they did as part of a multi-faceted fundraiser for his daughter’s school (Beauvoir, The National Cathedral Elementary School) and the National Center for Children and Family – a Bethesda, MD based organization dedicating to serving vulnerable children, youth and families by providing programs and services that inspire their ability to thrive and give back. Marcus was the chair of the scholarship benefit and incorporated his popular wine brand, FLO, into the fundraising effort as well. The album draws from the 15 streams they created for this purpose during the time of quarantine.

True to Marcus’ expansive stylistic palette, the tracks include everything from funky straight ahead (“Doc’s Groove”) and fiery, intensely percussive Latin jazz (“Road to Los Suenos”) to a whimsical, wildly improvisational romp through the Brazilian classic “Mas Que Nada” and fresh, fanciful re-imaginings of two R&B/pop classics, the lush and soulful Maxwell ballad “Fortunate” and The Jacksons’ buoyant, slammin’ “This Place Hotel.” Marcus’ other originals include the seductive, punchy “Right Now,” a dynamic showcase of the pianist’s camaraderie with Caldwell’s sly basslines and Bynum’s hypnotic percussive cool; the spirited strut “Danny’s Song,” which features Marcus’ artful blend of grace and groove on the keys, and one of Caldwell’s hippest solos; and, as its lighthearted title would indicate, a rambunctious, carefree, thumpin’ and funky yet ultra-improvisational “Summertime Flo.”

Testament to the trio’s innate and always spark-filled chemistry, it’s not surprising to learn that Marcus and his cohorts create all this dynamic, super-jazzy and deep pocket (with touches of exotica) perfection without a single practice session. Focused on creating the best sounding streaming presentation possible, they gathered at Blue House Productions in Silver Springs, MD and went to town, vibing organically off each other and simply letting the special feelings carry them where they may. At the end of each song, they would look at each other and immediately know it was killer, that they nailed it.

When Craig Neely of Pro Marketing Entertainment heard the tracks Marcus culled for Quarantine Sessions, he didn’t hear a typical smooth jazz radio single (which many of Marcus’ previous albums since his 2000 debut included), but urged him to release it because most fans of the pianist’s music have never heard him play the piano this way – and it could open up a whole new realm of live and recording opportunities for him. When you get an earful of these amazing eight tracks, you’ll feel excited, lifted and optimistic about the future of contemporary jazz.

The opening cut “Road to Los Suenos” is thus far the biggest hit on Quarantine Sessions and was selected by Spotify to be on their State of Jazz Playlist.

The trio’s passion for this project is such that they have created videos for all eight tracks, and these offer an incredible way to experience the songs in a whole new light. Please visit: Quarantine Sessions (Videos) - YouTube.


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