“A miraculous musician with a terrific creative imagination” – Radio NZ

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a theatrical adaptation of Orwell’s Animal Farm in Port-au-Prince, Haiti which incorporated voodoo drumming and Haitian historical references.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. 

1981
Born in Wellington and raised in Pukerua Bay by his mother Cecilia Johnson (teacher) and father Louis Johnson (poet).
2000
Completes a Bachelor of Music from Massey University.
2002
Leads his own ensemble in a headline concert at the Wellington Jazz Festival as well as performing at the New Zealand Festival with the Underwatermelon Man.
2003
Moves to Paris, France.
2005
Tours India with French based circus troop Clowns Sans Frontières.
2006
Performs and records with the Alan Silva trio in Paris.
2008
Performs at WOMAD and Nelson Arts Festival with Village of the Idiots.
2009
Composes music for Zannimo Late, a theatre creation at the Festivale des Quatre Chemins, Port-Au-Prince, Haiti after a four month residency.
2010
Upon returning to live in New Zealand, records albums as leader of Shogun Orchestra (Jakarta Records), The Troubles (Rattle Records) and as musical director of The Yoots.
2011
Tours Brazil, leading his own quintet with top Brazilian musicians at the Savassi Jazz Festival.
2011
Completes M.Mus in Composition from Victoria University under Professor John Psathas.
2012
Embarks on three world tours with iconic New Zealand reggae band the Black Seeds.
2013
Is musical director for the Yoots collaborative performances with the Aotearoa National Māori Choir at WOMAD and Auckland Arts Festival.
2015
Performs at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival with the Commonwealth Jazz Orchestra and the Troubles.
2016
Performs as guest artist with Mulatu Astatke at the Wellington Jazz Festival. Travels to Ethiopia for research and to perform at the African Jazz Village in Addis Ababa.
2017
“Addis Nocturnes” premiered at the Soirée Ravel at the Cinéma Balzac in Paris by concert pianist Jeffrey Grice.
2017
Completes Doctor of Musical Arts in Compostion from Victoria University under Professor John Psathas.
2017
Composes music for “Lobsters” by Borderline Arts Ensemble and wins Best Sound Design at the Wellington Theatre Awards.
2017
Releases “West of the Sun” on Japanese label Wonderful Noise and is a finalist for the New Zealand Jazz artist of the Year.
2018
Joint recipient of The Harriet Friedlander Residency in New York.