American jazz comes to Israel

The American vocalist will enjoy the substantial backing of the Eyal Vilner Big Band, led by the eponymous 34-year-old New York resident Israeli saxophonist, for her tour here.

Shenel Johns (photo credit: HARRIS DAVEY)
Shenel Johns
(photo credit: HARRIS DAVEY)
Many artists feed off a multitude of cultural, disciplinary and personal sources. In Shenel Johns’s case, you can add a strong religious factor.
Johns, who will be front and center in the next installment of the current Hot Jazz series, which kicks off Saturday evening at the Sapir House Auditorium in Kfar Sava, grew up with the sounds of ecclesiastic singing in her young ears.
The American vocalist will enjoy the substantial backing of the Eyal Vilner Big Band, led by the eponymous 34-year-old New York resident Israeli saxophonist, for her tour here. Johns says, like many a good thing, her musical education began at from home.
“I come from a really religious [Christian] family. But before I started going to church, I remember my mother would put on music while she was cooking on Friday evening for the Sabbath, and I would be in the kitchen with her. She would put on really old reggae gospel artists,” Johns laughs. “Then I would hear it again, in church, because it was a Jamaican church on the Saturday.”
That was an emotive formative experience for the youngsters and, at a later stage, when she became more intellectually aware, Johns began to analyze what she was listening to, and to break down the component sonic parts.
“When I started really paying attention to what was going on, when I was beginning to be super cognitive. It was this overwhelming thing where I realized I could hear different instruments.”
Now 29-year-old Johns’s entry into the realms of music appreciation was of a largely religious nature.
“It was pretty strict at home. I wasn’t allowed to listen to much of anything,” she recalls. There was, however, one familial escape clause. “My older sister. She was leaving high school or starting college. She would leave around old CDs she’d buy. She was really into the New York soul music when that was really big. She was into [soul, smooth jazz, pop singer] Sade and [R&B, neo-soul, funk, jazz singer songwriter] Maxwell, and that sort of thing. So that was my first introduction to pop music or soul music or a different [non-church] genre.”
The youngster’s imagination was well and truly sparked and she began taking her musical evolution into her own hands.
It is always fascinating to delve into vocalists’ musical continuum, primarily to see whether they played an instrument at some stage and, if so, if that colors their approach to singing in any way. With Johns, instrumental impact took a more circuitous, secondhand, route. There was some therapeutic added value in there as well.
“When I was little I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t talk to anybody, I wasn’t popular,” she says. There was emotional solace, and musical enlightenment, to be found in the church. “There was an organist in the church, and sometimes she would be the only musician there. She was amazing, just incredible.”
Johns was suitably inspired. “We never sat down at the organ together. She never showed me how to play, but I realized after a while that in order to be a great musician I have to get into an instrument.”
What Johns describes as “an on-and-off relationship with the piano” ensued. “I don’t think the piano likes me at all,” she laughs, adding that she recently bought a guitar, and is hoping to make some incremental instrumental inroads.
The synergy with Vilner et al will spotlight numbers recorded and performed by late R&B, pop and blues singer Dinah Washington. Johns says she got into Washington’s body of work after turning on to R&B, soul, blues, pop and jazz singer Nancy Wilson.
“For me each generation or style of singing is like a different personality to me, or a part of myself.” After getting into Wilson’s phrasing, she started pondering Wilson’s influences and how she got to her approach to musical performance. “I wondered who she was listening to, and then I found Dinah. I was like ‘Whoa!’ When Nancy Wilson’s singing a song, Dinah Washington is in your face.”
Johns felt an immediate bond with Washington, and not just on a musical level. “I was a teenager and I was starting to rebel, you know, getting out of the house. And Dinah just knew. She understood me. She was singing about me.”
That emotional tide should come through loud and strong over the next week and half, with Johns happily strutting her and Washington’s stuff, with hefty support from Vilner and his polished lineup.
For tickets and more information, call 03-573-3001 or visit