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July 20, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Artscene: The sounds of Brazil -- Menlo Park singer-composer and his eight-piece group perform at Twilight Concert Artscene: The sounds of Brazil -- Menlo Park singer-composer and his eight-piece group perform at Twilight Concert (July 20, 2005)

By Renee Batti

Almanac News Editor

Ed Johnson uses a simple metaphor for himself when he talks about the impulse to write music.

"I'm like a faucet that's lost its washer," he says. "I can't stop. I'm perennially on."

A Menlo Park resident and self-described "singer and composer who happens to play guitar," Mr. Johnson has been keeping his Brazilian-style jazz flowing like water -- warm to steaming, never tepid -- not only onto score paper but on stage and in recording studios. And he is set to further heat up the summer night next Tuesday, July 26, in a "Twilight Concert" sponsored by the city of Palo Alto.

With him will be the seven members of his ensemble, Novo Tempo -- highly regarded players with many years of experience and an uncommon camaraderie that turns a live performance into an event of soaring sound and energy.

The ensemble performs primarily original Brazilian-infused tunes by Mr. Johnson, with an emphasis on melody and song. It's music a listener might find himself humming the rest of the day and beyond.

While the music is unmistakably Brazilian in flavor, Novo Tempo has no Brazilian among its ranks. That fact is noted by the acclaimed Brazilian-born pianist and composer Jovino Santos Neto.

Regarded by many as the musical heir to the legendary Hermeto Pascoal, Mr. Neto observes in the liner notes he wrote for Novo Tempo's latest CD, "Movimento," that "without a single Brazilian in the band, Ed manages to put his finger on what makes a song sound 'Brazilian.'"

How? The answer, he notes, lies in "the way that a subtle syncopation hops among voices, in the gentleness and passion that a keen ear detects in the grooves."

Most if not all of the players recorded on "Movimento" will perform next week in Palo Alto. Among them are two married couples: saxophonist and vocalist Kristen Strom and guitarist and vocalist Scott Sorkin; and pianist and singer Jennifer Scott and bassist Rene Worst.

But Mr. Johnson and other players are quick to point out that the entire group is like one big family, and that also includes John L. Worley Jr., who plays trumpet and flugelhorn; drummer Mark Ivester; and percussionist Jeff Busch.

In this happy mix, a "self-propagating energy (emerges) that buoys everyone up," Mr. Sorkin says. "We're always pinching ourselves, asking, 'Do we really get to do this -- to have so much fun?'"

The close relationship of the players is perhaps the key to the seemingly effortless blend of voices and instruments that results in a warm, lush sound both in live performances and on the group's recording. It's a relationship based on mutual respect and generosity, says Ms. Strom.

"Everybody is willing to give," she says. "And Ed's got a big smile on his face because we're playing his music."

Mr. Worley says hooking up with such a group is a musician's dream. "You practice all your life, hoping to play with a group like this," he says.
Early influences

Born in San Francisco and brought up in Palo Alto, Mr. Johnson said he grew up in a family that nurtured in him a love of music. "My mom would sing and play piano every night," he recalls.

His older brother introduced him to a range of musicians, and he was listening to jazz greats like Miles Davis and John Coltrane by the age of 10, setting the groundwork for "a certain sensibility for jazz-related music," he says.

He studied French horn, but switched to guitar as a student at Gunn High School. A friend who was studying classical guitar "was playing really cool South American pieces," and his attraction to that music led to the discovery of Antonio Carlos Jobim.

"Once I heard Jobim, I started looking for other Brazilian music," he says, and the sounds of that country -- jazz, popular and folkloric -- melded, becoming "a deeper and deeper obsession."

"It wasn't anything I did by design; I just followed the flame of passion."

Although he has studied the Portuguese language, he collaborates, primarily with Lissy Abraham, when writing Portuguese lyrics for his songs. But he appears to have duly mastered the language of Brazilian music. "It's a palette that I feel really comfortable with now," he says.

Ed Johnson and Novo Tempo perform on Tuesday, July 26, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at a Palo Alto-sponsored Twilight Concert, held in Rinconada Park Bowl, 777 Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto. Novo Tempo has recorded a new CD, which is due out next year. For more information about Ed Johnson and Novo Tempo, visit

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