Cello By Choice
Okorie "OK Cello" Johnson Blends Genres and Tells Stories

By Lee Valentine Smith

Musician Okorie Johnson performs as "Ok Cello," playing his well-worn instrument with live-sound-looping and flights of solo improvisation. His latest album Resolve weaves traditional jazz with elements of classical, EDM, funk and reggae, wrapped around dynamic, personal storytelling.

His narrative pieces frame the story of the DC-born, former English teacher and movie producer. Now playing solo after long collaborative stints with India Arie and Doria Roberts, the Atlanta-based musician's set at this year's Jazz Festival is a must-see event. INsite caught up with the musician by phone as he planned his set.

With your music, people have to actively pay attention. It's not just background noise.

I'm working on really pointing my set towards the outdoor space and I'm really looking forward to it. I hope it'll be a good chance for people to see me play live in the middle of all this incredible music, enjoy the beautiful weather and really make an outing of it.

You seem to be ready for the challenge of playing a festival.

I have played some rough spaces. I've opened for people who have a very loyal following who may not be into the opener. But in those spaces, I've done very well. And the thing about me, I'm not just a cello player like you'd see in a chamber setting. I beat on my instrument and there's this one drum-and-bass tune that I actually get up and dance to. I may save that one for the end and just dance right on out into the audience.

Your music tends to be very personal.

It is and I find what people really gravitate toward is the storytelling aspect of it. I have some interesting stories that are both very personal and imaginative. I used to be an English teacher so standing in front of a crowd and getting their attention and then managing that attention is not beyond me.

You had a very interesting show at MODA (Museum of Design Atlanta) recently. Tell us a little bit about that performance.

They had a really beautiful exhibit of expresso machines and they wanted me to do a full-on show right in the middle of the gallery. They wanted to do something a little bit different and what was interesting about that is I didn't use a mic, I just set up right in the middle. So I played amongst the expresso machines and everyone was standing all around. I loved that it was a non-traditional space and it went over wonderfully. I was definitely channeling my classroom skills and my reading-the-room skills. I was really using my instrument to be as demonstrative as possible and it turned out to be one of the best gigs so far this year, just because it was so different. That's where the personal storytelling comes in, 'cause a lot of my life is an open book. It's personal but it's not precious. I'm just being honest and vulnerable at the same time. I'm not worried about what I'm putting out because I'm comfortable sharing it in a song or a story.

It must be a great challenge to not have a band to fall back on. It's all on you, in the moment.

And I'm ready to do it. The looper is a very powerful tool. It's a way to have a band but it's just me. That way, I know what I want to do and that's it. I do miss playing with people but this a great way to control the expression. The solo career that I have now is really a by-product of me just playing for my own sanity.

Playing solo, you can improvise the entire show if you so desire.

I like really taking a risk and not falling back on something that's tried and true, and trying to see if the audience will come along with me. I find that those are some of the coolest moments of the show.

That's the very definition of jazz.

Exactly and you know what I might do? If the crowd is really listening, really giving feedback and we have a good dialog, I might take a suggestion of a word or a color. Then just build a song on it, totally in the moment.

How did the cello become your instrument of choice?

It wasn't popular when I was a kid. The thing that was popular was the violin. If you're going to play an orchestral instrument it's usually violin. But violin classes were full. My mother's sanity would not abide percussion so that was out. Woodwinds were out. I was small, so the bass was out. So really what was left was viola and cello. My mom played the viola in school and she said, 'Why don't you try something different than me?' So there was the cello. You know, I was thinking the other day that a lot of things in my life chose me. I'm thinking the cello was one of the first ones. The cello has been more sure about me then I've been about it. It's always been waiting for me. It wasn't until I turned 40, I finally realized I just can't leave it. It grounds me.

OK Cello plays the Atlanta Jazz Festival on Sunday, May 26 on the Oak Hill Stage at 3:30 p.m.



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