Ski Johnson blends in hip hop and other influences to come up with a sound that is fresh and unexpected.
By Kristen Obadal
Early February brought a bittersweet moment for local jazz musician Ski Johnson; one moment he’s reveling in the glow of a fourth walk down the Red Carpet of the Grammys in Los Angeles, the next he’s mourning the tragic loss of his longtime friend and music mentor, Whitney Houston.
“Clive Davis gave a party in Beverly Hills, but I just couldn’t go,” Ski recalls of the event held in the ballroom of the Beverly Hills Hilton, shortly after Houston had slipped away in her suite upstairs. While the shock settled in on the music scene, Ski played a tribute to her later that night. “I was down at the Hard Rock Café and a camera crew caught me and asked me about it, so I played Amazing Grace…She was a dear friend” he said.
Like many musicians, Ski drew inspiration from Houston, especially for his new album, Underdogs on Top, which is released in June. If you don’t know Ski, get yourself to YouTube and check out a few of his tunes and videos.
Over two decades of live performances and studio albums, Ski has proven himself to be a prolific and versatile jazz saxophone performer who just keeps getting better. The Potomac resident knows jazz and experiments with the definitions of the genre, blending in hip hop and other influences to come up with a sound that is fresh and unexpected.
Sure, he can be found on film playing with a backup band of Vegas showgirls, but his bread and butter are not slick videos. He says it’s about the art of making music for the 21st century. Those who know him talk about how real he is, totally unaffected by the growing attention of fans and media, and by the fourth Grammy nomination he picked up in 2012.
According to Sky, playing the mood of a certain moment is how jazz gets written “I have a team that I work with; we jam in the studio until we get something, a certain sound,” he says in his smooth, velvety voice.
His new album is no exception. On the day of our interview I found him in his studio, working against production deadlines to get it right.
As for the inspiration for Underdogs, Ski says, “I was always the underdog. I was bullied when I was young and music saved my life.”
“Some teachers were laughing at the fact that I wanted to make records when I grew up,” he recalls. “I lost my hair young too. My mother even took me to a doctor. At that time during the seventies, a lot of hair was popular, especially among African Americans.”
The music comes to him at odd times. “The music comes from personal experiences and things I hear. I write in the shower, or when I am driving or even when I am lying down. You never know when it’s going to hit you.”
His roots are in DC, although Johnson maintains a residence in Los Angeles as well. “I am from DC but my agent William Morris is out in Beverly Hills. I didn’t want to get a place out there but I eventually broke down and did it. You have to be there…it’s a part of the business.”
Although being nominated four times without a win is frustrating, Ski appears confident about his new album keeping him in contention for the coveted award next year. “This album is so diverse…it is not your typical jazz record. It will cross over into pop, gospel. There is a remake of Amazing Grace. We are shooting the first video for the first single this weekend.”
He describes his jazz as mainstream. “People have this misconception about jazz as this music where you sit around and make love, and that is a part of it, but there was a time when people were dancing to jazz,” he says. “It’s too bad people don’t have that time anymore. Paul Minor is the senior producer on the record I have a great team. We think it is going to do well.”
If Ski didn’t have his sax, he might have become an entrepreneur. “I have always been good in business and own several businesses, but I always end up selling them. I figured out a long time ago you have to do what you do best.”
For Ski, that would surely be music. Music and video games and business have come together in his new venture, a video game called the Sax Machine, which plays retro games from the 80’s. It hits the shelves in late July.
Johnson will be promoting Underdogs at a live premier performance at The Hamilton in DC on June 13. Rep.Eleanor Holmes Norton(D) will be on hand to present him with a special award.
As is practice, Ski will be contributing proceeds from his album to his foundation Jazz for Life. “It’s personal to me as I lost both parents to cancer, so I try to do my part.”