Lucien Johnson (born Wellington, 1981) has been described as “a saxophonist and composer of rare excellence and mettle.” His iconoclastic musical style is distinctive for its lack of adherence to existing formulas and defiance of genre categorization. Although rooted in the free jazz of the 1960s and 70s, Johnson has forged an intuitive path through the European free improvisation scene through to research into various African musical genres alongside fully composed piano music and composition for theatre and dance. As saxophonist or composer, Johnson typically takes a post-impressionist approach to sonic exploration, which is often underpinned by an affinity for rhythms derived from various traditional sources.
Johnson’s music has been greatly informed by his global travelling and encounters. Living in Paris for most of his formative years in the 2000s, he performed in a free improvising trio with Alan Silva (free jazz luminary and contemporary of Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler among others) and Makoto Sato, releasing an album on French label Improvised Beings. During these years he became involved in music for theatre, which led to some unusual incidences such as touring India with a circus troop in 2006. In 2009 he wrote the music for a theatrical adaptation of Orwell’s Animal Farm in Port-au-Prince, Haiti which incorporated voodoo drumming and Haitian historical references. The four months he spent there were greatly affecting and upon return to New Zealand in 2010 he formed Shogun Orchestra to perform some of the repertoire he had learnt for a charity concert he organized after the Haitian earthquake. The group went on to release two records on German label Jakarta Records.
His doctoral research into contemporary Ethiopian music led him to spending two months in Addis Ababa in 2016. There, he performed at Mulatu Astatke’s African Jazz Village, and with Astatke at the Wellington Jazz Festival the same year. He created two very different works derived from his research: Awesome Robots, an Afrofuturist electronic soundscape which was subsequently used for a dance work by the New Zealand Dance Company, and Addis Nocturnes a 30 minute piano work inspired by the Ethiopian composer Emahoy Tseque-Maryam Guebrou which was premiered in Paris by Jeffrey Grice for the 2017 Soirée Ravel at the Cinéma Balzac.
Johnson is the composer for Borderline Arts Ensemble, directed by choreographer Lucy Marinkovich. Their work, Lobsters, inspired by the surrealist painters, played at Wellington’s Circa Theatre in 2017 and was rewarded with three Wellington Theatre Awards. Johnson was awarded Sound Designer of the Year for this work and was also nominated for Outstanding Composer. The same year he was the recipient of the 2017 Susan Rhind Award in composition. His latest album West of the Sun on Japanese label Wonderful Noise was a finalist for the NZ jazz album of the year 2018.
Lucien Johnson has been awarded the 2018 Harriet Friedlander New York Residency from the Arts Foundation of New Zealand.