With a new album of original material titled Odd Shaped Puzzle while armed with a fresh alliance of talent to render it, musician Aaron Johnson has managed to create one of the most impressive and engaging listening experiences to emerge out of the local, regional, and national musical scenes over the past 18 months.
For those unfamiliar with his work, Johnson played lead guitar and was front-line vocalist with the band Sprout and the Orange for over 20 years. During that time he also maintained a solo career while doing performances with dozens of musicians across Michigan and has consistently won, several Review Music Awards, including Most Innovative Artist and Best Guitar Player.
Enlisting the talent of drummer Erik Friday and Justin Mangutz on bass, along with Barbarossa Brothers keyboardist Loren Kranz, with his newest outing Johnson has crafted together an album of nine original tracks that are each uniquely and intricately crafted with divergent tempos and textures, yet all fit together to form an impressively breathtaking musical experience.
Given the precision and complexity of the musical directions Aaron has meticulously charted for each of the tracks, did the material develop as a solo project, or did Johnson bring in the rest of the band to collaborate?
“When I moved up to Traverse City a couple years ago, I had to take a break from music in general and collect myself,” he reflects. “I had done home recordings before, but never went full bore with them until I got the gumption to put this album together. “Once I got it close to where I wanted, I sent it over to Andy Reed and Charlie Williams to work their magic on it.”
“Once the album started taking shape, I wanted to put together musicians I knew could pull it off, so we could play all the material live,” he continues. “I’m still doing my Loop Show at gigs, but with this material it’s impossible to capture going that route. I’d made friends with Justin over the years and knew him to be an all-around good musician who has a good ear - actually, he has two of them. He’s really good at picking up on what I had charted for the parts, which I wrote pretty much for each of the songs.”
Drummer Erik Friday, who readers may remember played with award-winning band Thick as Thieves, was enlisted largely because the rough mixes were all created with software drums. “Erik is an awesome drummer,” notes Aaron, “plus he can sing and has a good sense of listening to what’s going on around him with each of the songs.”
With the beautiful and propulsive piano and keyboard weavings of Loren Kranz, would Aaron consider him a fourth member of Odd Shaped Puzzle? “Loren’s been traveling all over the state, and I know he wouldn’t consider himself part of the band because he’s so busy with Barbarossa and his other projects. He has his hands full, but it was such a privilege to work with him on this project and show what we can do together. We have another guy coming in soon, Derek Young, from the band Covert Operations,” notes Aaron. “
Apart from the quality of the execution that unifies each of the tracks on Odd Shaped Puzzle and the divergent shape of each song that pulls together each piece of this musical puzzle, what was Aaron attempting to achieve that he feels distinguishes this outing from his previous work?
“I’ve always wanted to write more upbeat songs, because I didn’t have a lot of them and most of my previous original work consisted mostly of ballads, but this with this latest batch of songs it was like the melodies came to me in dreams. The song I, My Mind, the Universe just happened instinctively.”
Indeed, other standout tracks for this reviewer consist of Full Moon Nights, which builds through a blend of different time signatures and tempos that literally carry the melody into another dimension on the wings of Johnson’s lead guitar and Kranz’s keyboard ; interplay; Saudade Street, which is beautifully constructed up-tempo ballad that trickles like raindrops upon one’s imagination; Queen Marie which is built upon a funky bedrock reminiscent of The Average White Band that is brilliant colored by the horn section of Lee Dyer on trumpet, James Besaw tenor and also sax, and Joe Balbaugh - trombone on the track Bread & Wine.
One of my favorite tracks of all, however, is the break-out opus Control, which integrates Johnson’s talent’s with looping by forging an introduction threaded together with news snippets drawn from various media outlets as the musical narrative builds with impressive expressive focus while the lyric offers a meditation upon the never-ending conflict of how to retain control in the midst of things we are unable to control.
All the tracks for Odd Shaped Puzzle along with the album can be purchased on their website at OddShapedPuzzle.com.
The band is adding more live performance dates and will be appearing at Horrocks Farm Market on Oct. 2nd in Lansing at 5 PM and will be playing Union Street Station in Traverse City on Oct. 24th the weekend before Halloween,”
16th November, 2023