Weekender

State College native to conduct homecoming show at American Ale House

Locally raised jazz saxophonist Greg Johnson will return to the area July 5 for a show with old friends from the Zeropoint Big Band.

Johnson will conduct the band at the American Ale House and be a featured soloist. The band will perform new musical selections from Johnson, including interpretations of several Michael Jackson songs.

“I’ve written a lot of adventurous new original music as well as a few deconstructed arrangements of Michael Jackson tunes,” said the 2006 State College Area High School graduate. “The common thread is ‘groove.’ I wanted to write a set of MJ big band music that grooved just as hard as the original but in a different way. It’s a little hard to describe in words, but I encourage people to come out and hear how the pieces come together.”

The performance will be a special homecoming for Johnson.

“Before the band was called Zeropoint (Big Band), it was called the Valley Jazz Orchestra,” Johnson said. “I was lucky enough to play in that group when I was in high school. They really took a chance on me because I was super young and inexperienced. Now that I lead a similar band in the (San Francisco) Bay Area, I’m realizing just how much that opportunity meant to me and my development as a musician.”

Johnson has remained in contact with Zeropoint Big Band leader Rick Hirsch over the years.

“We’ve been collaborating for quite a few years now and (Hirsch) is on some of my recordings,” Johnson said. “I feel really lucky that the musicians in the group are gracious enough to play my music and let me wave my hands and direct traffic. A lot of them taught me as I was developing as a young saxophonist.”

Johnson is an avid composer and conductor, working with several groups in the music industry. He has worked across genre lines, notably with indie pop band Saint Motel.

The young saxophonist believes Saint Motel touches audiences in a very unique way.

“I’d played a lot of pop music before but I’d never seen crowds react to the music like they do with Saint Motel,” Johnson said. “I’ve learned a lot about music and being a musician from being around those guys. Touring with them gives me an opportunity to get away from the straight-ahead jazz scene and play fun, grooving music.”

The saxophone found Johnson at a young age. He said his first memory of the saxophone was in the subway of Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

“I don’t remember what it sounded like, but it looked cool!” he said. “Growing up in State College, I was lucky enough to have really great musical instruction at all of the schools that I attended.”

Even as a child, Johnson knew he was hooked for life.

“I really can’t imagine what my life would be like if I did anything else,” he said. “I realized pretty early on that I wanted to be a full-time musician. This was really hard for a lot of people in my life to understand. They encouraged me to be more ‘practical’ and that always frustrated me. I knew that I was going to end up doing music and had faith in my abilities.”

Growing up in State College affected Johnson in a profound way — he even has a piece called “Happy Valley” that will be performed by the Zeropoint Big Band.

“Happy Valley is the place where I grew up,” he said. “It has always inspired me to create and be artistic.”

Johnson urges concert-goers to be ready for an adventure at the American Ale House on July 5.

“Good music provides a certain amount of escapism, a break from the routine of everyday life,” he said. “I’d encourage people get out of their houses and experience a different type of music. Take the image of jazz music that you have in your head and throw it out the window.”

IF YOU GO

  • What: Zeropoint Big Band
  • When: 7:30 p.m. July 5
  • Where: American Ale House, 821 Cricklewood Drive, State College
  • Info: www.gregjohnson jazz.com
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