london’s ayanna witter-johnson makes the cello bop

March 15, 2019
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Wanna start the weekend off right? Let Ayanna Witter-Johnson show you some things you can do with cello loops. The opening bars of “Nothing Less,” the newest single from the London-based classical cellist who doubles down as an jazz singer and R&B songwriter, reveal the notion that something very special is coming down fast and directly at you.

What at first sounds like some gibberish emanations by multiple string instruments — a plucked bassline, some strummed cello strings, and a sharp bowed note — quickly form an absolute monster of a rhythm figure. Then they repeat, and a big weird groove is born. It’s the kind of thing that many abstract hip-hop and grime producers would consider a standalone win; but for Ms. Witter-Johnson, it forms the backbone of a modern soul-pop anthem of self-identity, and one of the best singles we’ve heard in a minute.

“Come as you are — nothing less,” the chorus demands, a statement of purpose from an artist whose creative essence and CV are nothing if not extravagantly diverse. Witter-Johnson is a graduate of both London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and Manhattan School of Music; worked as a featured artist with London’s famed youth program, Jazz Warriors, and as an arranger and orchestrator with the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. She once won an Amateur Night Live at the Apollo Theater, and was nominated for a 2012 MOBO for Best Jazz Act. And while “jazz” can be spotted only tangentially in her vocals on “Nothing Less” — more so on her last EP, Ella, Reuben & Ay — it is completely part of her essence.

As is a sense of humor. Not many classically trained musicians would even dare pull off Tia-Monique Uzor’s go go-inspired choreography — “dance with a cello?” — like she does in this lark of a video. Then again, not many would have been able to come up with that groove either.

Road Runner, Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s full-album debut, is out in late April