Taking the Unpaved Road

By Madge Slack

Have you ever felt so inspired by something you just couldn’t stay away? Is there a path you always seem to end up talking no matter the detours you take? These are common occurrences in the lives of Kris Johnson and Lulu Fall. These well-established artists have come together to work on an album ­— and they have also started dating.

The duo’s partnership began when Johnson helped Fall with some piano exercises. She sent him a song she was working on and he built an orchestration around her. He kept building song after song, focusing on “lifting up the vocalist with the instrumentalists.”

Johnson is a trumpeter, pianist and composer. He is currently director of jazz studies at the University of Utah although ironically, he didn’t always believe in jazz.

Johnson hated jazz growing up. He played trumpet poorly and wanted more than anything else to be a basketball player. He listened to hip hop and soul and thought of jazz as exclusively smooth jazz or elevator music. One day, his brother took him to a jazz festival and Johnson fell in love. He realized that while he had the heart for basketball, he did not have the skills. He was good at trumpet and progressed quickly once he started practicing. After finding his passion, Johnson learned everything he could and graduated with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Michigan State University.

Fall’s passion for lyricism began as she was writing poetry on the walls of her bedroom, on paper she had taped there. She attended a performing arts high school where she was introduced to music, and a voice teacher encouraged her to pursue jazz. Fall earned a degree in jazz studies from Michigan State University.

Both of these artists have mastered the art of going with the flow. They each applied early to a single university and were accepted. That was it. After graduating, Fall went to New York and Johnson began putting together what is now the Kris Johnson Group. Despite the name, he says it is a “completely collaborative” group of extremely talented musicians.

The Kris Johnson Group has been together for over 10 years. Many of the members were collected by chance through workshops and fortuitous concerts. The group members live in different states and work on different projects, but they meet occasionally to “let their hair down and play,” according to Johnson.

When Fall joined the Kris Johnson Group to record the album, she had never performed with the entire group, but Johnson was confident     Fall would fit right in.

“We discovered quickly that our writing style fits together,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy process, pretty streamlined. We didn’t force this to happen, it had to happen.”

Some of the songs on the album were recorded only once because all the elements came together perfectly. This coming-together seemed to be the theme of their album making process. Johnson and Fall started by rekindling a friendship, and before they knew it, they were dating.

Johnson and Fall said this album is a mashup of all different kinds of African-American music styles including soul, R&B, jazz and hip hop. Their style is BAM, or Black American Music.

The music is soulful and beautiful with elements of some of the best music styles out there. This album is the Kris Johnson Group’s first recording with a singer. Check out their EP “Impulsive” and download “The Unpaved Road,” today.

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