Mister Rogers' music gets jazzed at Winter's Jazz Club
Generations of kids grew up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and its star — Fred Rogers — appears ascendant once again in our culture.
A documentary of the same name premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and Tom Hanks is set to play Rogers in the feature film “You Are My Friend.”
Rogers died in 2003, at age 74, but the tributes keep on coming, most surprisingly from a hauntingly beautiful new recording by Chicago jazz singer Keri Johnsrud and her collaborator, pianist Kevin Bales: “Beyond the Neighborhood: The Music of Fred Rogers.”
Johnsrud and Bales offered their first live performance of this music on Thursday evening at Winter’s Jazz Club, and like the album, the concert presented a window onto their art and Rogers’ muse. For Rogers watchers may not realize he wrote the songs he sang on his show, and they’re clearly ripe for jazz improvisation.
Like most children’s pieces, Rogers tunes such as “It’s You I Like” and “I Like to Take My Time” convey their message simply, directly and without pretense. But they’re well-crafted enough to convey deeper meanings when interpreted by artists of Johnsrud’s and Bales’ gifts.
For starters, the openness of Johnsrud’s sound and the unaffected manner of her delivery are ideally suited to such music, if its childlike character is to be preserved. So when Johnsrud began the evening singing “It’s You I Like,” there was no mistaking the warmth of her instrument, the radiance of her tone or the buoyancy of her approach to swing rhythm. Add to this Bales’ all-over-the-keyboard technique, and you had proof positive that Rogers’ vignettes could carry a great deal of musical weight.
Johnsrud turned her vocal colors much darker and duskier in “When the Day Turns Into Night,” which she and her colleagues made into a reverie. Taking a slow-ballad tempo, Johnsrud spun long and uninterrupted lines, seemingly suspending the passage of time. Pianist Bales led an aptly lush instrumental accompaniment, his solo an expertly conceived, meticulously detailed transformation of the piece.
Depending on whether you loved or disliked Rogers’ decidedly sugary persona, these songs can seem either sweet or saccharine. Johnsrud and Bales clearly believe there’s more than just surface-deep sentiment in this music, and they made that case in “You Are Special.” For though the singsong lyrics could be understood by a 3-year-old, Johnsrud’s gentle melodic inflections and subtle turns of phrase took this music to a more meaningful level, no small feat.
In the up-tempo “Look and Listen,” Johnsrud’s savvy lines and reedy timbre made a seemingly four-square song into something genuinely sophisticated. In this piece, and others, Bales partnered with bassist Kevin Smith and drummer Marlon Patton in instrumental interludes that deepened the jazz context of the music-making.
The ensemble’s work reached a high point in “Find a Star,” from a Rogers operetta, performed here on a larger and more dramatic scale than one might have expected from such an evening.
True, one often wished that Johnsrud would follow pianist Bales’ model and riff much more freely on Rogers’ originals. Perhaps that will come with time.
For now, though, she and Bales have made a compelling case for Rogers’ songs, which fare remarkably well in the rhythms and cadences of jazz.
- Howard Reich, The Chicago Tribune
Beyond The Neighborhood is something special. This CD consists of songs written for the beloved children's show, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, by its star and producer, Fred Rogers. In the hands of pianist Kevin Bales and vocalist Keri Johnsrud this music translates very well into a jazz setting.
Rogers' songs with their messages about self-confidence, friendship and universal love as are pertinent for adults as well as children, especially these days. Musically the original melodies are basic but strong enough to work in all the rearrangements that Bales and Johnsrud create. "It's You I Like" becomes fast-paced bebop, "Look And Listen" adapts nicely to a funky New Orleans groove, "I Like To Take My Time" sounds beautiful as measured gospel and "Just For Once" glides over an exotic tropical beat.
Keri Johnsrud's singing throughout is remarkable, light and soft with elements of poignancy, innocence and sometimes even sensuality. Kevin Bales' piano can gently float over the melodies or pound rhythmically as called for, sometimes evoking the touch of Rogers' own musical director, pianist Johnny Costa. The rhythm work of Billy Thornton and Marlon Patton is sensitive to the needs of the music but not above some fun embellishments like circular drum rhythms on "Just For Once" and "Find A Star" that come out of Ahmad Jamal's famous "Poiniciana" groove.
This session is a delight. It pays tribute to Fred Rogers' music and spirit in a fashion that glows with respect and carries over some of the powerful messages of the show itself. It's delicate and moving and one of the highlights of the year's music so far.
- Michael Bailey, All About Jazz
With a highly acclaimed documentary now playing in theaters, and several noteworthy television retrospectives in broadcast rotation, the world is re-discovering the work of Mister (Fred) Rogers. Since the gentle friend of children passed away in 2003, several recordings have attempted to place Rogers’ original songs into an adult context. I can’t say with certainty that Rogers ever intended his songs to be interpreted in this fashion, and none of the cast members or production staff I interviewed could confirm or deny it, but the strength of these songs allow them to work in this manner. Chicago vocalist Keri Johnsrud and pianist Kevin Bales have collaborated on a new recording, “Beyond the Neighborhood” which explores the adult themes of Rogers’ lyrics to a deeper degree than ever before. The album opens with a highly abstract instrumental figure which leads into a up-tempo arrangement of “It’s You I Like”. Johnsrud treats the melody like it was a jazz standard, as she takes great chances with her melodic variations. The abstract figure returns to usher in Bales’s dynamic piano solo and a swinging bass chorus by Billy Thornton. And while drummer Marlon Patton does not solo, he follows the quick changes of the arrangement with unerring precision and swing. “Just for Once” becomes a seductive call to a new lover to find a quiet place for a rendezvous. It sounds like a far cry from Rogers’ story of two children longing to escape their meddling parents, but not a word of the original lyric is changed. Moreover, it reinforces the idea that the need for escape does not disappear when children become adults. Johnsrud and Bales have not betrayed these songs; indeed, they have enriched them. “I Like to Take My Time” works especially well in their deliberate but propulsive slow tempo; this tempo would have been too slow for the TV show, but grown-ups will appreciate the connection between tempo and lyrics. Depending on when listeners watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, some of the songs presented here may not be familiar. As a viewer of the earliest years of the show (1968-70) I didn’t know “Find a Star”, “When the Day Turns into Night” or “Troll Talk”. With an album like this, such ignorance may be a benefit as it leaves us without preconceived notions. We can appreciate the musicianship of this fine ensemble in the same way as if they were performing their own original compositions. Throughout the album, Johnsrud sings the lyrics with great conviction, and she displays a deep knowledge of jazz interpretation. This rhythm section is a highly cohesive unit, performing exceptionally well as a group, and all three members are exceptional soloists. After seeing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” at a local theater, my friend commented that she wanted to check out the Mister Rogers Songbook. This album might be the hippest way to explore that treasure trove.
- Thomas Cunniffe, Jazz History Online: Crossroads
"For her sophomore effort “This Side Of Morning”, vocalist Keri Johnsrud presents a collection of original material co-written with pianist Kevin Bales. Featuring a powerhouse band of Chicago musicians including guitarist Neal Alger, bassist Larry Kohut, drummer Jon Deitemyer, and vibraphonist Stephen Lynerd, Johnsrud explores a range of emotions in what amounts to a wonderful album of poetry set to music.
Much of the album conveys a sense of hope in times of loss. Keri describes difficult situations with a depth that evokes tenderness without coming across as trite or campy. Many of the questions asked in the lyrics read rhetorical, as if the overall melancholy tone of the music provides enough of an answer.
The inherent risk in combining elegies in narrative form with improvised music is that the two competing ideologies can sometimes create a final product that sounds forced and unnatural. Keri manages to keep things organic by employing a diverse range of musical styles to accompany her through-composed lyrics. The grooves on “From Here” and “The Chameleon” provide welcome contrast to the free-form solo sections featured in “A Thousand Tears” and “Fly Away”. Keri Johnsrud's crystal clear voice and impeccable intonation allow her to project true sentiment through dense lyrical material on this gem of an album."
- Ben Scholz, All About Jazz - 5 out of 5 Stars
Clear-toned vocalist Keri Johnsrud mixes jazz with dashes of pop and folk here with Kevin Bales/p-rho, Larry Kohut/b, Neal Alger/g, Jon Deitemeyer/dr and Stephen Lynerd/vib. She’s a throwback to the days of singer/songrwriter, and handles both roles with freshness and allure.
She’s able to sound convincing in a variety of moods. She teams with Kohut on a stark and harrowing “Here I Am” and yet can go comforting and childlike on the tender “Everything’s Okay.” With Bales, she goes dreamy on “When Morning Dawns" and vulnerable on "Little Dream." She proves she’s able to flex her muscles, getting feisty with the band on ”The Chameleon" and slinking along with a samba on “If and When.” She wins you over by being winsome.
- George W. Harris, Jazz Weekly
Jazz singer Keri Johnsrud’s new album is her first of all-original material, which proves to be a smart move. Writing her own songs (with pianist Kevin Bales) gives her an opportunity to tailor each tune to her voice—which is cool, agile and intimate; and while she borrows from established genres for rhythm and color, the point of view can’t help remaining entirely her own.
“From Here” is a superb opener, drawing you in with a persistent but not overpowering groove, over which Johnsrud glides like a figure-skater. There’s a seventies flavor to it—and I mean that in the best sense; the solos by Bales and bassist Larry Kohut have the rippling, liquid quality of that decade’s best fusion. “When Morning Dawns,” by contrast, has the feel of a classical art song, while “If and When” is breezy and bossa-inflected, and “Everything’s Okay” could almost be a Broadway anthem. The lyrics throughout aren’t quite so adventurous, tending to hew to exploration of feelings and fears in terms not entirely new to listeners; but they serve the material well, and occasionally offer up some turns of phrase that make you sit up and take notice, as in the wave-like ballad, “A Thousand Tears”: “Sweet is your word / Tender is your touch / You’re the one everyone wants / But nobody gets / ‘Better days ahead’ is what they always say / But who, who are they?” Johnsrud never sells any line short, and her commitment wins you over—as does the sheer suppleness and sweetness of her singing. She remains self-confidently sangfroid—there’s no tail-wagging appeal for your approval—which is probably why she secures it.
Ditto her players, who in addition to Bales and Kohut include Jon Deitemyer on drums, Stephen Lynerd on vibes and Neal Alger on guitar. Everyone manages a few killer solos—notably Lynerd with a beautifully contemplative performance on “Here I Am,” and Deitemyer and Alger with rousing funk turns on the album’s sizzling closer, “The Chameleon.”
I missed the CD-release gig at the Green Mill earlier this month; I’d have liked to see whether a full, energized room inspired Johnsrud and the players to add a little heat to the mix. But there’s always next time. Until then, I’ll keep spinning this baby, and chilling out to its seductive cool.
- Robert Rodi, New City Music
"A Chicago staple, Keri Johnsrud is far more than the typical jazz vocalist. This Side Of Morning walks that delicate harmonic tightrope between the cerebral and the visceral with odd meters and eclectic genres tossed in for a sound that is fresh and innovative. An all original release normally hits all the right notes or it can be a crash and burn of epic proportions, Johnsrud is as talented a lyricist as she is a vocal artist.
The first and perhaps most logical question from most would be, "Who does she sound like?" A question fraught with peril so imagine Patricia Barber with a bit more variety and you might be in the ball park. A pristine voice, impeccable phrasing and the ability to draw the listener inside the song. Johnsrud doesn't merely sing the songs, she makes the music. The band is first rate and allows her to embrace a more organic side of where vocal jazz can go. Impressive.
Having been known as someone brutal on female vocalists, Keri Johnsrud is like that first day of spring. A lyrical breath of fresh air and a rising star…"
- Brent Black, Criticaljazz.com
“Particularly compelling are the wordless vocals of Keri Johnsrud. Singers frequently talk about their instrument being on equal footing with the other players on the bandstand, and that’s certainly the case with Johnsrud’s contributions here. Whether she’s adroitly echoing another player’s riff in “From Parts Unknown” or injecting a touch of bossa nova flavor to “Full Count,” her vocals add compelling textures without being overly showy.”
- Bobby Reed, Downbeat Magazine
Shawn Maxwell's Alliance editor's pick review
"Johnsrud has a soft, flexible voice with a hint of a Nancy Wilson influence and she knows how to play with lyrics even in a straight Jazz arrangement..."
- Jerome Wilson, Cadence Magazine
"When “Anything Goes” tiptoes in atop “All Blues,” you know you’re not in familiar Cole Porter territory.
Indeed, the long-anticipated debut album from Chicago vocal stylist Keri Johnsrud is largely about finding the unexpected in the familiar. The bright shimmer of her voice, a crystalline instrument of deceptivity simple beauty, defies the depth of her artistry.
Consider, for example, how her “Old Country” at first echoes Nancy Wilson’s classic rendering before following Matt Cashdollar’s lilting flue to a dramatically darker space. Similarly, her “The Great City” starts out on the expected Shirley Horn path, then, turning on the word “whirlpool,” descends to a harsher yet still intoxicating place. On “A Blossom Fell,“ Johnsrud echoes Nat Cole’s tender regret and is ignited by Darren Scorza’s smoldering drum line; the heat of her anger slowly rises, and the performance builds to a scorching finish.
More startlingly orginal is the onomatopoetic way in which she makes the walls crumble and the winds blow on “Cabin,” and how she loosens “Cryin’ Time” from its desolate Ray Charles grip and reshapes it as a quietly contemplative study in shrugged acceptance. (Emotional tumult ebbs and flows around her, courtesy of the gifted pianist Matt Nelson.) Which isn’t to suggest that Johnsrud can’t just settle into a lovely ballad, as she does on a dove-soft “But Beautiful” and a sweet, gently bossa-fueled “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To."
- Christopher Loudon, JazzTimes Magazine
Chicago-based Keri Johnsrud opens her debut CD with something novel, yet it’s no novelty. She seamlessly sings Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” to the beautiful and distinctive melody of Miles Davis’s “All Blues.” The melding works wonderfully, as does Johnsrud’s cool and casual delivery throughout this project.
The CD also includes her reworking of Nat Adderley’s “The Old Country,” Buck Owens’ country classic “Cryin’ Time,” and a range of American Songbook material and more. The seven players supporting her in a range of groupings are excellent with great empathy throughout.
You’ll enjoy the standout soloing by Matt Nelson on piano, keyboard and organ, flutist Matt Cashdollar and guitarist Ari Seder on various tracks. Johnsrud’s duet version of “But Beautiful" with Seder is just that. A low-key, laid-back beauty.
- Ken Franckling's Jazz Notes
Chicago-based singer, Keri Johnsrud has a unique and appealing voice. Sweet, clear and understated, but the girl can tinge it with blue more naturally than many of the female vocalist trying for that vein.
In addition, she has eclectic and fascinating taste with the songs on her debut album ranging from well-known and lesser-known standards like Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," Harold Arlen's "For Every Man There's a Woman," Nat Adderley and Curtis R. Lewis' "(The Old Man From) The Old Country" and Burke/Van Huesen's "But Beautiful" to more unusual fare like country and western songs like Buck Owens' "Cryin' Time" and Merle Kilgore's "More and More," as well as "A Blossom Fell" (a hit for Nat King Cole).
Johnsrud deftly utilizes the strengths of her backing musicians - mixing and matching among keyboardist Matt Nelson, guitarist Ari Seder, vibraphonist Chris Graham and flautist Matt Cashdollar - along with double bassist Cory Biggerstaff and drummer Darren Scorza. The singer shares the spotlight with her instrumental soloists while creating the appropriate focus on her sophisticated yet natural delivery.
Graham shines on the opening track - a clever merger of Miles Davis' "All Blues" with Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," while Cashdollar and Nelson are featured to good effect on "The Old Country." "But Beautiful" is a lovely duet with guitarist Seder that showcases Johnsrud's mixture on clear tone and emotion, while "More and More" is a delightfully funked up R&B number. Perhaps my favorite portion of the album includes the swinging straight-ahead version of Chicagoan Curtis R. Lewis' overlooked song, "The Great City" and a brilliant version of Paul Bowles (yes, of The Sheltering Skyfame) and Tennessee Williams (yes, the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'splaywright)'s American Art Song "Cabin."
Arranged by Nelson, this short slice of life lieder song is extended into near epic proportions to form the somewhat romantic/somewhat unsettling centerpiece of the album. Biggerstaff takes a nice solo turn and percussionist Ogie adds tasty congas, before the heralded Nelson performs his magic. Johnsrud's world-weary vocals fit the song perfectly - a true highlight. Nice to hear the bluesy organ and guitar version of "A Blossom Fell" as well. A very nice debut from a singer with an appealing combination of talent and taste. Can't wait to hear more from her as her career progresses.
- Brad Walseth, JazzChicago.net