Vivian Perry: The perfect accompaniment
By Paul Freeman
For The Daily News
Talk about two artists being in tune with each other — when vocalist Vivian Perry heard her piano tuner, Christopher Johnson, artfully playing jazz tunes on her keyboard, she realized she had found her perfect pianist/arranger. Both are based in Oakland.
Teaming their talents has resulted in The Vivian Perry Quartet's debut album, "Thought About You."
When the quintet plays Angelica's Bistro on Saturday night, the audience will probably hear two of the selections from the album — "How High The Moon" and "That Old Devil Moon." They fit the show's theme, "Moony Tunes."
All the songs in the set have "moon" in the title, such as "Blue Moon," "Paper Moon," "Moon River," "Dancing in the Moonlight" and "Moondance."
Perry said, "As a vocalist, you can't get away from the melodies of the Great American Songbook. What appealed to me was the opportunity to connect with an audience, to take things and make them your own and not be trapped by any iconic performance. For me, it's about going into the character that's singing and becoming that person.
"What I think we've done, even with familiar tunes, is make really fresh arrangements," said Perry.
Johnson explained, "I usually take the tune home, hack it up to death, and then I reconstitute it. Then it comes out something different."
Often it begins with Perry's emotional reaction to a lyric. "I come up with a very strong sense of the person that's singingthat tune and what world they're coming from. Like 'Our Love Is Here To Stay,' from the CD, if you think about the lyrics, it's a commitment, a vow. And I asked Chris to come back with a kind of porch swing-glider kind of feel to it. And he came back with this beautiful arrangement. So we often work together that way."
The essence of the song is always retained. Johnson said, "We try to remain true to the original melody and what we think the composer's intentions were. But we're not averse to taking a different approach."
Listeners respond enthusiastically. Perry said, "These songs are talking about falling in love and we all still do that in the same way they did when these songs were written. So the wisdom and feelings of these tunes still apply today."
Johnson grew up in Lafayette. Perry is originally from Southern California. "I thought I was an alien, until I moved here and discovered that, no, it was just Los Angeles," she said, laughing. "I've been very happy in the Bay Area for the last 25 years."
Perry and Johnson share a love of Steely Dan, Shirley Horne and Ella Fitzgerald. Perry's favorite vocalists also include Blossom Dearie and Mabel Mercer.
"They were ladies who really could sell it," Perry said. "When you would hear them sing something, you got a real idea that there was a whole person there that was telling you a story about their life that was absolutely compelling."
Growing up, Johnson absorbed his parents' big band and Sinatra records. But his friends were into more modern sounds, so Johnson picked up guitar and joined rock bands (including Tye, which released an album).
Eventually, he segued to jazz piano and studied music composition. He found that he had a gift for creating arrangements.
"It's been a revelation to discover that arranging jazz music is really fun," Johnson said. "It sort of fulfills the compositional need that I crave. And working with Vivian is so easy. We like a lot of the same things. So stuff I come up with, even if it's wild and wacky, is stuff that she usually thinks is pretty cool. We enjoy bouncing ideas off each other and coming up with something that sounds better in tandem than something that I might come up with just for myself."
She said, "We have the same musical sense of humor, so we make each other laugh a lot. And that makes it a lot of fun."
Johnson added, "We try to put a it a little bit of that into the arrangements, as well."
Perry said with a chuckle, "I figure, if we get you to laugh, you might come back."
Johnson is 58. Perry is 52. She had always harbored the dream of recording an album. She's thrilled that it has become a reality. Perry said, "Sometimes you just hit a certain age and say, 'You know what? This has to happen now.' I feel lucky to get to my age and still be confronted by things I've never done before."
Perry and Johnson are looking forward to premiering their quartet at Angelica's Bistro.
Perry said, "You want to communicate with the people, to bring them along on this story that you're telling. You want to try to lift them out of their ordinary pattern of to-do lists, into this Disneyland wild ride that lifts them up, makes them laugh and makes them dance."
"People tell us that they have a really good time at the shows," said Johnson. "And that's the big reward for us."
E-mail Paul Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: The Vivian Perry Quintet