Jeff Johnson: A mysterious intellectual doing intelligent pop

Saturday 1st June 1991

He's cut seventeen albums, produced a best selling jazz album and been called the 'master of Christian New Age music'. Who precisely is JEFF JOHNSON? Bob Longman Jr. investigates.

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"As I develop a body of work there's quite a stream already developed and it's hard not to continue growing in it. It's not like I'm stuck in the mud by quoting myself now, but I find myself going back to the ideas I've already had, to pick up where I left off. On the surface 'Pilgrimage' is a spiritual travelogue, but underneath the skin there are many of the continuing themes that have already shown themselves on my previous albums, and in some respects are resolved now."

It's hard to critique Jeff Johnson. His shimmering sound is so awe-inspiring that it's easy to overlook the soft spots. One does not turn to Johnson for street savvy. He sometimes overblows the artistic references, such as in "Closed, please call again", from Icons' A few times he lapses into his own stylistic stereotype as in 'Fallen Splendour's "Time Waits For You". And he could rely just a little less on his electronic wizardry and a bit more on acoustics. But that's nit picking. Nobody else, anywhere, sounds quite like Jeff Johnson. It's hard to compare his work with anything but his own previous work; talk of the Moody Blues, Peter Gabriel (when mellow), Vangelis, Paul Winter and the Windham Hill artists does little more than point out the listeners who would most appreciate the sound.

Typical of Johnson is, "He Is Not Here" from 'Splendour', where he combines two originally separate works into a stunning whole - a refreshing Spanish-style acoustic guitar instrumental by Sandy Simpson takes us right into upbeat hard rock that celebrates the discovery of the empty tomb: "This darkness that I move in cannot keep me from your light/Things are not what they're supposed to be here."

In "Monet's Failing Eyes" from 'Splendour', Johnson uses abstractist sounds just as some abstract painters drew inspiration from the strange new things the painter Claude Monet saw after an eye operation. Johnson sings as an aging man struck by how deceiving appearances are: "What is true and what is not are often dressed the same". He asks for guidance and wonders if he'll ever understand what he sees going on. Or, in what may have been Johnson's best work, "Windemere" from 'Icons', the approach of dawn startles the hills overlooking England's lake Windemere, moving from a silent drowse to a bright awakening of life in the world and in the soul, all revolving around a line from Keble. The weaving back and forth between the theme for the night and the theme for the awakening day give way in the end to the church bells which beckon one and all to come together.

Johnson wants to clear away some of the spiritual doubts caused by the New Age label that is usually used to describe his music. "Just by being more accessible in interviews and in concert, people are less confused as to what I'm doing," he says. "For the last couple of years I've been caught in the crossfire of this whole New Age scare because of my mystical style and I've had to do a lot of explaining of myself. (Concert performance) gives me a place to say yes, I really am a Christian.

"It's a different kind of music than they're used to hearing, but it comes from the same kind of desire and sincerity and context that other sincere Christian artists are working from."

Ten years ago, Jeff Johnson, a Portland artist, began to synthesise a unique music combining the sweep of classical with the power and excitement of rock. "The Face Of The Deep" (1980) combined dreaming with reality in a dazzling panorama of electronic and acoustic sounds. Johnson has since created 12 albums and the flow of his work has deepened and broadened to include both vocal and instrumental music.

'Simlitudes' (1990) is the fifth in the instrumental series begun with 'No Shadow Of Turning' (1 985). That volume in the Meadowlark contemplative series collected Johnson's pieces along with those of Sandy Simpson. Dieter Zander and Kathy McClatchey. The popular response it received prompted an album-length meditation on the theme of water and its symbolism in Scripture in which Oregon bassist David Friesen and saxophonist Dave Hagelganz joined Johnson to create what Pulse magazine called "a tranquil, elegant and intimately evocative excursion. "Quietly engaging," is how Peter Gross termed 'Born Of Water'(1987).

Hagelganz returned along with Kathy McClatchey and Sandy Simpson on 'Why Should The Heart Not Dance?' (1988) a unique collection interspersing six original numbers with three traditional hymns. "Soothing and intriguing," Christianity Today called 'This Mystery I Pose' (1988), which collects the best instrumental pieces from four years of Johnson's work. Newly recorded and remastered, these pieces centre around a nativity poem read by Dallas McKennon, accompanied by Johnson's rendition of the "Coventry Carol".

'Pilgrimage' (1989) is the fifth in a series of fascinating vocal albums begun with 'The Face Of The Deep'. Influenced by artists and inspired by authors, these albums combine jazz, rock and classical elements with characters who probe the world and its mysteries. Johnson's songs take us out of ourselves for a time, to see men and women as icons, the play of light in shadows, and to reglimpse the glory in Creation. His characters are tireless searchers who grapple with the vagaries and verities of life. Like Johnson many are artists and while some wrestle with the angel others struggle with the Muse.

Three of these albums won Campus Life's Album of the Year award. Jim Long found that 'Shadow Play' (1983) strains classifications. Karen Marie Platt, writing in CCM summed it up as appealing to people who love "records, good music and very special things". Brian Quincy Newcomb noted the "cerebral, mood-music feel" of 'Icons' (1984). "More than 50 Minutes of the most articulate, intriguing and beautiful music on vinyl today," Doug LaBudde wrote in New Sound of 'Fallen Splendour' (1986).

'Pilgrimage', which completes the series, is Johnson's most personal album yet, falling into a reprise of his past compositions. Splendour in the ordinary is the theme of the album; castles and cathedrals in France inspire meditations on the nature of life, the glory in Creation, family, the presence of God and the power of love. Science fiction inspired a more fantastical collaboration with Sandy Simpson on 'Through The Door' (1982).

Images from such authors as C.S. Lewis and John Bunyan propel this mystery tour.

Images from such authors as C.S. Lewis and John Bunyan propel this mystery tour drawn from allusions of the Christian faith. Part two, 'The Awakening' (1987) is a dazzling aural journey centering on the human search for meaning and evincing Johnson's proficiency as a musician.

Johnson also co-produced Sandy Simpson's 'The Passing Of The Dark' (1 985) and David Friesen's 'Inner Voices' (1987). More recently he co-produced the top 10 jazz album 'Other Times, Other Places' (1989) by David Friesen for Global Pacific/CBS.

In a sense, the whole body of Johnson's work over the course of 14 years has been a pilgrimage, from being a single teenager fresh out of high school to being a family man soon to enter mid-life. God often uses pilgrimages to teach us lessons and to remind us of things that we lose track of in the bustle of day-to-day life. And what are the key lessons he's learned from it all?

"God has a tendency to work like a hand in front of my face," he says. "By that, I mean that one needn't go to Europe or have these earth-shaking experiences in far away places to be inspired by God. God works through the people that he brings into your life. God has the most profound effect on us through the communities that we're involved in. In America, that idea has gone to the wayside. We've really lost our sense of community. You read a book like Robert Bellah's "Habits Of The Heart" and other works that evaluate how our society has changed and the one thing that rings loud and clear is that people make their decisions based on individualism rather than based on community, and I think you could apply that right down into the Body of Christ, the Church." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Bob Longman
Bob Longman Jr is an American journalist who has contributed to many publications.

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Reader Comments

Posted by PhiLiP s. SchMidT in London, Ontario, Canada @ 03:53 on Dec 23 2015

Back in the early 1980's, I read an album review of Jeff Johnson's 'The Face of the Deep' in Contemporary Christian Music Magazine. Intrigued, I purchased the album. The rest, as they say, is history. Many years have come and gone, but Jeff remains my favourite musician/songwriter of all time. Why? Because he combines his unique stratospheric keyboard sound with honest lyrics that resonate with spiritual depth. The result is a one-of-a-kind musical transcendence that I refer to as 'sonic splendour.'
And Jeff's series of Selah contemplative albums aren't just beautiful, they're hauntingly beautiful. I am incorporating these albums into my daily 'regimen' on my elliptical crosstrainer. I will say this unabashedly: My spiritual formation is being impacted in no small way by the compositional and musical genius of this man.

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