Review: Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat

Emma Johnson's Gravy Boat

The Vortex Jazz Club, Dalston, London N1
Thursday 9th June 2022

It is more years than I care to acknowledge since I last visited The Vortex. It has moved a short distance further towards Dalston from its old Stoke Newington site. Tonight the gig is taking place in the intimate downstairs bar which means, as it is still daylight, I can watch people milling about in the square outside the venue. So we can observe a snapshot of North London life carrying on while a talented young Jazz Quintet from Leeds keeps us entertained inside.

This is a gig that was supposed to take place, and which I was meant to attend, back in December before COVID struck down Emma and another band member. It was a cruel way to scupper the very last leg of their first UK tour, and what would have been their London debut. Six months on, their reputation has continued to grow including more airplay across various stations and shows (including mine!), an appearance in the Fresh On The Net Fresh Faves and more live appearances that have extended their original tour into, in essence, a year-long one.

Empty Stage

There is no support act tonight. Instead, they are playing two (presumably identical) sets, one at 7.30PM and another at 9PM. I am at the 7.30 performance which means, as it is mid-June and the summer solstice is looming, it is broad daylight. Emma spots me in the front row of this intimate gig as she emerges from the upstairs green room and jokes “So no pressure then!”. Not that there would be when you have a unit so well rehearsed and accomplished as Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat.

Most of tonight’s set is derived from their outstanding 2021 debut album Worry Not. They kick off with Vertical Planes, initially with a burst of triplet time full band play before slowing into a dreamy, more translucent mood. From the outset, drummer Steve Hanley is a powerhouse, a virtuoso extension of the Duracell Bunny whose energy matches the brilliance of his playing and ideas. Even when he plays quietly, the fluidity and nuances scarcely relent. The chemistry between Steve and Double Bassist Angus Milne is immediately evident. Angus is also a bundle of energy, his fingers gliding across the four strings and switching between high and low positions. They are without question the bedrock of the quintet, allowing the other three members the space to stretch out or to drop back, according to the needs of each tune and section. Emma’s sax playing on the track is mellow, melodic and magical. There is a cool contrast between the captivating extended piano solo by Richard Jones and the laid back guitar solo that follows courtesy of Fergus Vickers who, when not doubling the sax theme or playing carefully crafted solos, picks out chords with such a lightness of touch.

The Gravy Boat band playing

Emma intersperses the tracks with tales of some of the stressful and harmonious events that inspired them. She is good humoured and the audience quickly warms to her. Setting Sail follows, the album’s opening track, rhythmically fluid and punctuated by unison phrases. One of the constants in the Gravy Boat’s sound is the doubling of sax melodies by the guitar. Emma’s solo includes some mind-spinning chromaticism as does Richard’s piano work. When the unison phrases return, surrounded by big offbeat chords, the drums and bass driving things forward, it reminds me of Kamasi Washington in a jam with Herbie Hancock (or you could substitute Herbie with other classic Jazzrock and Fusion pioneers).

The single Hold Me Tight, one of the most-played tracks on my radio shows last year, was written after Emma had experienced a minor meltdown and her partner had, in true British tradition, made her cup of tea and gave her a hug. It is a breathtakingly lovely track in which the melody, once again shared by sax and guitar, is butterflies-inducing. A characteristic of their chemistry is the ability to stretch out here and there with thoughtful solos and interplay that are never over-egged so that every note is highly listenable.

More of The Gravy Boat band playing

Where Were You Hiding, a previous single that did not appear on the album, is more laid back and the individual melodic patterns on the Double Bass are more audible. Fergus’s guitar work is just gorgeous, every tone picked with precision and deftness, and there is an aura of Big Band Era about some of the piano chords. The track ends with a beautiful run of harmonics from Angus on the Double Bass in the final two bars. Waterlogged, a piece inspired by the traumatic double whammy of a house flood and the ensuing months putting up with a dodgy builder, prominently features Angus, his solo sections subtly playing off against signals from Steve on the drums.

The album’s title track Worry Not starts with Richard’s highly distinct piano figure in fourths and fifths against which Emma plays a melody with a dissonant third that is striking and bluesy. Then Steve’s tasty drum fills brings the full ensemble in and there are continuous switches between quiet translucence with a sense of space and syncopated opaqueness with all the sounds interweaving. Again the solos are thoughtful and never overdone. Emma has a stunning command of the sax and, even when she shifts up a gear and shows her virtuosity, it is always tempered by an innate sense of what works melodically and rhythmically. Fergus epitomises the guitarist who approaches every solo like it’s a work of art in which the individual brush strokes are as important as the ensuing picture. The track ends with Richard’s stunning piano outro. 

It turns out that there is time for one encore and we are treated to more triplet time and cross rhythms before Steve leads the band into a slower tempo with dreamy textures and contrasts of individual flair and organised ensemble play. It is a fantastic finale to what has been an object lesson in how to write and play contemporary jazz without any of the showy self-indulgence that can be an element with certain artists. 

After the gig, I have a lovely chat with Emma who confirms that she does compose all the tracks, initially at the piano, and scores them out. Of course, though, the band members will then contribute arrangement ideas and bring their individual styles to the end products. I ask her about Richard’s tendency to bring elements of modality and even mild atonality into his piano playing. Emma confirms that those are his own innovations. She has clearly tried out a few line-ups prior to forming The Gravy Boat in 2019. It has been worth it to find such accomplished musicians. Their chemistry is key to their sound. It is infectious and inspiring to see five fine young musicians clearly enjoying what they do and doing it so well.

Neil March

Neil March is a Composer & Artist with a PhD and Masters in music composition from Goldsmiths University, who has pursued careers in the contemporary classical and pop worlds, and has been supported by BBC Introducing, for whom he performed with his live ensemble The Music of Sound at Latitude in 2017. Read more.

4 Comments

  1. Awesome review! I might dig the album out of the archives again, it’s bloody brilliant.

  2. Ah thanks Del and good idea re: the album. This was one of those gigs where the live experience more than lived up to expectations. Just wonderful. 🙂

  3. Sue

    Sounds like it was a fab gig Neil, so sad to have missed it – next time.
    I have Emma’s album and it’s one of my favourites!

  4. Ah thanks Sue. Yes it was a fantastic gig and I agree about the album. One of my albums of the year for 2021. 😊

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