“We’re gonna experiment cos that is what life’s about,” Ayanna Witter Johnson tells us. What unfolded this night were wonderful stories and a musical fusion of soul and jazz. Stepping into a packed out Jazz Café, Ayanna silenced the crowd as she picked up Rueben, her trusted friend who just happens to be a cello. People are crammed into every nook and cranny as they witness the opening track, ‘Ain’t I A Woman’, from her first EP, ‘Truthfully’ – a song taken from a speech by a former slave, a song that had gained Witter-Johnson major recognition when she performed it at The Apollo in Harlem.
What a powerful opener.
The night is in two parts with the remainder dedicated to her first EP which includes a cover of The Police’s ‘Roxanne’ which elicits murmurs from the audience such as “the best version of Roxanne I have ever heard”. It turns out it that this the song that sorely tested Rueben and made him her life long partner in music.
Ayanna is very aware that some of the audience are at least partially hidden behind a thick pillar. She takes to the piano to perform a few numbers and gives those with obscured view an opportunity to see clearly. She also notes the latecomers and makes them all feel very welcome as they enter. Great music and great appreciation. With appreciation comes a number for both her parents: ‘Chariot’ for her Dad and ‘Unconditionally’ for her Mum respectively. Her warmth and gratitude captures us.
How we can fit more people into this room is beyond me but more come as the second part gets underway. Silence wraps the room as Ayanna starts with ‘Single Sun’ from her second EP ‘Black Panther’ and then uses the cello in a way I have never seen it used – like a guitar – as she sings a song she wrote for Nigella Lawson (which at first gains laughs but as we learn it is about Nigella’s public domestic abuse). ‘Denied’ makes the room stand still. Not to get too intense, Ayanna then gets a song along with the audience with a Jamaican folk song and the harmonies from the audience were tight.
Ayanna had a set list but just as we are feeling it, she says the night is going a bit too fast and we get a last minute addition. The song also inspires a surprise backing vocalist from the audience and hearts melt as she performs Oleta Adams’ famous hit ‘Get Here’. It was also a song she first performed for her mother when she was nine years old. A very heart-warming moment of the night.
Thankfully another two songs follow including a much deserved encore. It’s not until I hear the chorus that I realize it is Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’. As Ayanna exits the room the audience are a bit lost as more is wanted. Hopefully on the release of her album, expected Summer 2017, she will return to the North East and we get a fuller show with no less of the experimentation which made this night so special.
Photographer – Victoria Ling
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