23 September 2015

Music Under the Radar: Johanna Grussner


"You're clear out of this world
When I'm looking at you
I hear out of this world
The music that no mortal ever knew

You're right out of a book
The fairy tale I read when I was so high
No armored knight out of a book
Would find a more enchanted Loralie then I

After waiting so long for the right time
After reaching so long for a star
All at once from a long and lonely night time
And despite time, here you are

I cry, out of this world
If you said we were through
So let me fly out of this world
And spend the next eternity or two with you

After waiting so long for the right time
After reaching so long for a star
All at once from a long and lonely night time
And despite time, here you are

I cry, out of this world
If you said we were through
So let me fly out of this world
And spend the next eternity or two with you" 

  - Out Of This World, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, music by Harold Arlen.



It feels odd to have to introduce Johanna Grussner to American audiences when you consider that  Grussner, who was born on the Aland Islands off the coast of Finland in 1972, lived  in the U.S for eight years, She attended the Berklee School of Music on scholarship and then earned a Master's degree in jazz performance from the Manhattan School of Music in 1998.   She taught at Public School 86 in The Bronx where she developed a program of vocal and instrumental instruction and music theory.  In May 2001 she brought a group of fifth grade students to Finland to perform gospel concerts.  Since 2001 Grüssner has lived in Stockholm, Sweden.


Her musical ambitions are expansive.  At home in Finland, Grussner and her sisters Ella and Isabella formed a folk group  Daughters Of The Wolf.   The year before graduating from Berklee she recorded her first cd; the year after she formed her own nineteen piece jazz orchestra which toured Scandinavia, performing at jazz festivals and clubs, sometimes joined by the New York Voices.   Since moving to Sweden, Grussner has recorded not only jazz but Swedish and Finnish folk songs and even a record of Moomin songs for children based on the popular characters of author Tove Jansson.
Out Of This World is usually classified as a ballad because it lacks a pronounced rhythm.  Grussner turns this received wisdom upside down.   Her agile vocal technique and near perfect command of English paired with  accompanist Ulf Karlsson,  whose work on both six and twelve-string guitars is impeccable, combine to give a rhythm to the song that it has not had before, something between a walk and a bossa nova-ish lilt.  Unlike some singers with crystal clears voices, Grussner is also capable of deploying colors in her phrasing.  Thanks to her version, I will never think of Out Of This World as a standard again.  It lives.
 
The song is structured  without a verse; it has four sections – A, a variation of A, B, and back to the A variation in conclusion.   Alec Wilder (in his History Of American Popular Song, 1972)  heard in its melody  echoes of the mixolydian mode of Gregorian chant.   Mixolydian was the seventh  of eight modes (similar to key signatures ) in  medieval church music.  Arlen also used  melisma in Out Of This World, scoring two notes for the word “knew.”  Melisma is a technique familiar to us from  its use in gospel music;  it comes from early Christian plainsong.  Unlike  syllabic singing where  each syllable is matched to one note,  when a singer moves from one note to another on a single syllable, that’s melisma.   Wilder was certainly right to describe Out Of This World a not typical of Harold  Arlen's songs, but then it is not typical of anyone else's style that I can think of either.  


Listen to Johanna Grussner sing Out Of This World.
Visit Johanna Grussner's website
No More Blues, a recording by Johanna Grussner, Naxos Jazz: 2005.

Image:
Photograph of Johanna Grussner, 2010, courtesy of Allaboutjazz.com.