Johanna Burnheart


Liam Murphy

December 23, 2023

Tracks in this feature

Tracks in this release

An unmissable ensemble performance produces bright jazz with swaying and slick rhythms

Silence is stationary. When music begins, the listener subconsciously latches onto whatever rhythm is being established. Even in ambient genres, such as field recordings or drones, our ears naturally try to search out a beat or pulse, something that helps us to understand where the momentum of the track is coming fro and going to.

This is what makes jazz so interesting, and so revolutionary at the time of its creation. The listener is often entrusting the thread of the song to the artist, moreso than any other genre. It often feels risky, as the rhythm stumbles and falters in order to communicate something outside of the tidy, suffocating realms of more simple beats.

Johanna Burnheart brings this unpredictable use of rhythm to B​ä​r by the boatload. On each of the album's tracks, the listener can sense the importance of the speed and the slickness of how the music is moving. As composer, producer, violin and voice on the album, Burnheart leads this charge spectacularly and the chaotic but controlled drums of Ben Brown, the dulcet vibraphone tones of Jonny Mansfield and everyone in between contribute sizeably to its beauty. B​ä​r shines with the gilding and refinements of all who feature on it. Johanna Burnheart herself clarifies that “I have challenged myself and my band tremendously with these pieces”. It shows.

Surprisingly, the first aspect of rhythm that makes itself known is the voice. After lethargic layers of Burnheart introduce us to B​ä​r, we then hear her searching out with bright, scatting vocal sounds on Falke. Whirring synths weave around her too, an employment of more modern and often technologically restricted instruments. The melody and pacing feel strangely spontaneous, that is until Burnheart's troop appears behind her, following with dormant tones that emerge fresh and wonderfully buoyant. 'Show that you are not afraid' Burnheart repeats, closing each collection of lyrics. There's a defiance and bravery in it, but the drums jab out and digital residue from the vocals skips and judders uneasily. Are we sure we are not afraid? The tone is somewhat menacing and the momentum of the piece, though brave, falters on occasion. 

Contrastingly, Burnheart's vocals implement a marching rhythmic melody on Ems at the album's midpoint. A pedal note giving lyrics a thrumming confidence, especially as she reassures herself: 'how can I fall, I know it all'. There's that same menace that often comes with the exploratory tone of jazz, but the vocals push through with a pragmatic melody built into a solid foundation, though this only lasts for around a minute. The instrumentation veers off, incredibly-played chattering drums wash over our sense of stability – still being defiantly implemented by the bass line – with an atmosphere of uncertainty. This begins to glow more brightly, too, as shrill violins wheel off into a reverbed landscape before an undoubtedly troubling melody line rushes in on the back of drums that have worked themselves into frantic fits of snare and cymbal. There's that flowing momentum, a similar vocal line even sheepishly reenters to close things out, but its tinged, once again, by unpredictability. 

Johanna Burnheart even incorporates the flow of rhythm into the very narrative of some songs, like Something Cool, which weaves a tale of spontaneity and relaxation. Resonant bells and electronically charged percussion give a sense of vibrancy and intrigue as Burnheart describes a scene of repose; a request for refreshment in a humid, possibly holidaying location. The open-ended and endearing tone conveys an atmosphere of tranquillity, the popping high-pitched percussive elements even sounding like fizzling bubbles in some fancy beverage. Burnheart shocks the listener, though, as she introduces another person into the scene, saying she doesn't often 'drink with strangers'. What follows is a somewhat coy conversation between the two, and the listener begins to understand that that sense of intrigue comes not from simple refreshment and relaxation, but also from the chance meeting with a stranger and the cooling sensation of such a situation. The moment is exquisite and speaks to the intricate arrangement of the album as a whole, the 'challenge' Burnheart set for her band pays off in this and many other choice moments. 

In employing interesting rhythmic experiences through the use of imaginative composition, Johanna Burnheart and her band are able to convey complex feelings of momentum and drive behind B​ä​r. Some tracks achieve an interesting confluence of emotion, like hope alongside mystery. Other tracks use pacing and percussion to aid the story in the lyrics. This may all sound rudimentary, that is, until you fully appreciate the technical skills on display in each song. Each instrumentalist shines individually and as a collective, elevating the release as they do so.