Music: David MacKenzie and Josh Johnston




Ireland’s David MacKenzie and Josh Johnston have practically pulled off the impossible.

Their second recording, Notes Home, captures one of the most beloved genres in jazz -- the swinging sounds of Stephane Grappelli and Joe Venuti when they turned the violin into a jazz instrument 80 years ago -- but MacKenzie and Johnston go a step further and subtly update and personalize that swing-jazz style with all-original material.

MacKenzie, a longtime classical musician, plays the violin and grew up listening to recordings by Grappelli and Venuti.  Johnston is a pianist who began playing jazz in college, but has even stronger roots in pop and folk music.  They are joined on their new album by jazz guitarist Stephen McFarlane (playing a hollow-body electric), acoustic bassist Andrew Csibi and percussionist Robbie Harris.

The music of MacKenzie and Johnston can be purchased at their website (, major on-line retail stores such as and, and numerous digital download sites including

The CD is titled Notes Home because MacKenzie, who wrote or co-wrote most of the material, often composes while on holiday in France and Italy, so his pieces serve as the musical notes he sends home to Ireland.  In addition, Johnston penned one tune and co-wrote four others.  The album is on Shandon Records based in Ireland.

Mackenzie remembers, “I started learning classical violin when I was three or four, but as I got older I was inspired and influenced by Joe Venuti, the first jazz violinist I ever heard.  I was knocked out by his technique, sound, range, intonation and vision.  He played with early jazz guitarist Eddie Lang and I listened to their recordings from 1928.  My other major jazz influence was Stephane Grappelli and his big, long, flowing lines of melody.  He was a beautiful player, a wonderful craftsman.  I especially love his recordings from the Thirties with Django Reinhardt on guitar when they had the Quintet of the Hot Club of France.  As a teenager you listen to these things and try to copy them, and later you move on and find your own voice.”

“When I started performing with David,” says Josh, “I listened closely to a variety of albums by Stephane Grappelli, and I can definitely see why the comparisons are made.  But on the other hand, we all add other influences to create our own style that includes classical elements, a little blues, some pop chord changes, a few modern jazz licks.  It comes out sounding like a blend of our musical personalities.  We do have some things in common with Grappelli -- a mostly acoustic band and a smooth-and-easy sound that is immediately accessible to the listener.  That was one of our top criteria.  We are trying to make jazz music that can be appreciated by anyone, whether you know anything about jazz or not.”

MacKenzie and Johnston’s first album, A Minor Happiness, was considerably different.  It was simply a violin-piano duet CD with the two of them recording about half originals and the rest standards or “off-the-wall pieces.”  In addition, they have performed on-stage as a duo, as a trio (with bassist Csibi) and as a quartet (adding guitarist McFarlane).  MacKenzie and Johnston not only play regularly in their hometown, Dublin, but have toured both Ireland and England with their band.

MacKenzie began his lengthy career as a professional classical musician at age 18 when he joined the BBC Northern Ireland Radio Orchestra.  His career then took him to the Dutch National Ballet Orchestra and the Overijssels Philharmonic in Holland, the RTE National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, and the Northern Ballet Theatre Orchestra (assistant leader) in England.  He is currently with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland.  He also has performed with other English orchestras in Liverpool and Bournemouth.  David has done studio session work for Elmer Bernstein, John Berry, U2, Shania Twain and The Corrs, and has performed in string sections on-stage backing Plant & Page, and The Corrs.  MacKenzie’s influences range from composers such as Bach, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, to violinists including Jascha Heifitz and Nathan Milstein, and on to jazz artists Charlie Parker, Joe Pass and Oscar Peterson.

Johnston earned a BA honors degree in popular music and recording from the University of Salford in England.  During college he led a jazz band, but immersed himself in a wide range of pop music.  “In the pop-rock world I have been influenced at various stages by The Beatles, Billy Joel, early Elton John, Steely Dan, Alan Parsons Project, Bruce Hornsby, Dave Matthews Band, Ben Folds Five, Moxy Fruvous and Elbow, and in jazz by Keith Jarrett, Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz.”  Johnston worked with Irish folk-singer, songwriter and guitarist Roesy for seven years (tours and recordings).  Josh also has appeared on-stage and on recordings by Kila (rocking world music), Declan O’Rourke (folk-pop), Karl Scully (an operatic tenor) and Ronan Swift (pop-rock).  In addition, Johnston has released two eclectic pop-rock-jazz-folk albums under his own name -- Three Friends and Asylum Harbour -- both featuring some original material, several instrumentals and the rest songs with vocals by either Josh or special guests.

Guitarist Stephen McFarlane -- whose influences include Joe Pass, Wayne Krantz and Django Reinhardt -- received his BA degree in Jazz Performance from the Newpark Music Centre in Dublin and continued his education with HDip Music studies.  McFarlane studied under Ronan Guilfoyle and has performed with Rick Peckham.  Bassist Andrew Csibi studied at the College of Music in Dublin and the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and has degrees from the Guildhall School of Music in London and the Newpark Music Centre in Dublin (where he currently teaches).  He is a member of the groups Havana Son and Cortisol, and has recorded with both.  Percussionist Robbie Harris performed in the New York production of “Riverdance,” and has recorded and toured with the Irish bands Puck Fair and Emer Mayock.

On the Mackenzie and Johnston album Notes Home, they come out swinging with the tune “The Latecomer,” primarily written by Josh and featuring a bass intro followed by violin, guitar and piano solos.  Other upbeat examples of swing-jazz on the recording include “Cap Mortola,” “Place Carnot,” “Sliding Scale” and “La Plage.”  But the band also can slow it down with beautiful ballads (“Waiting” and “Wistful Thinking”), a bluesy interlude (“Broadband Blues”) or a heart-rending, emotion-filled bossa nova (“Silk”).  “That piece was inspired by the imagery of those Lawrence-of-Arabia-type of camel caravans on the Silk Road,” explains David.  “Minor Happiness,” with what David calls “a quirky, offbeat melody,” captures the sound of a 1920s European dancehall.  Showing the group’s stylistic range are the pieces “La Narbonnaise” (a Johnston solo piano piece), and three MacKenzie-Johnston duets (“Through the Night,” “La Plage” and “Wistful Thinking”).

The music on the new CD was recorded “live in the studio” with very few takes to preserve the improvisational flavor.  Afterwards there was virtually no editing as the group prefers presenting continuous takes.  “We wanted the album to sound like the group was playing in your living room,” Johnston explains.  “Generally we use a traditional structure with the head of the tune stated, then solos, and the main theme re-stated, often slightly differently, at the end.  Our arrangements are simply deciding who is going to solo and when.”

“Improvisational jazz is a big step for me,” states MacKenzie.  “It took me awhile to throw off the shackles of classical music and having every note written out.  This is a new direction.  It was a little daunting at first, but I really wanted to explore my musical freedom and composing.  We never sat down to contrive anything.  These are simply genuine, honest songs with accessible melodies.  We want people to immediately feel comfortable with our music.  We don’t want them to have to work hard to understand or enjoy it.”

MacKenzie-Johnston and their band create timeless, classic violin-and-piano-based swing-jazz.  As you listen to these acoustic sounds, you may find yourself sharing in the excitement of discovery that audiences felt eight-decades ago when this type of music was heard for the very first time.

© 2009 Music Entertainment Magazine. All rights reserved.

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