Rusty Johnson, a musician who recently moved back to his native Iowa after living in Los Angeles and Dallas, performed a holiday concert in Oskaloosa, Iowa following the city’s lighted Christmas parade on November 30, 2017. He was joined by Eric Sickler on keyboards/vocals, Scott Barnum on double bass, and Sam Mogerman on drums. The concert also featured two of his alto saxophone students: a unique father/son duo.
At 8:30 pm on a Thursday evening, the Penn Central Mall in Oskaloosa, Iowa seemed surprisingly busy with families who had just finished watching the annual lighted Christmas parade along the nearby downtown streets. Many of those lingered to enjoy the holiday sounds resonating from the jazz quartet on stage in the central courtyard.
I discovered that a concert inside a mall offers both attractions and distractions for the audience. For about 10 minutes before the concert started, a flock of costumed characters from the movie “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” paraded around the courtyard along with Santa and several costumed elves leading what looked to be a large reindeer around the perimeter of the courtyard. Another elf barked out a loud greeting at odd and random moments. After a while Santa took his place at the photo booth “chalet” to the side of the courtyard, but the Rudolph characters continued mingling with the crowd and the elves and reindeer continued their rounds. At a later point during the concert, a couple of the costumed characters sat and stood behind the jazz quartet and bobbed their heads to the snazzy beat.
This concert was a homecoming of sorts for Rusty, who grew up in Oskaloosa and spent time in the foster child system. As an adult Rusty has spent a lot of time in foster youth advocacy, and he thanked members of the audience for their roles in his upbringing. Rusty also thanked the keyboardist Eric Sickler for mentoring him during his college days at Central College in Pella, Iowa.
Rusty began the concert playing tenor saxophone on Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes.” The next few songs had a holiday theme, including “Silver Bells” on which he also played tenor sax, and “Greensleeves“, captured in the video below, for which he picked up his alto.
For the next few tunes Rusty played his soprano saxophone: “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas“, “Summertime“, and “Winter Wonderland.” Keyboardist Eric Sickler lent his voice to some of the Christmas songs. Both the bassist, Scott Barnum, and drummer, Sam Mogerman, played interesting and enjoyable solos during some of the selections.
During the introduction of his students, Rusty explained that he had opened a studio in Des Moines (giving lessons in sax, flute, clarinet, and beginning piano) and that the son began lessons just a year ago and was now in 6th grade, while the father had played saxophone in school but wanted to take it up again. The duo played together on “Frosty the Snowman” and sounded quite credible.
The concert ended with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and even the elves got into the act as one led the audience in clapping along to the music. Despite all the ongoing activity during the concert (or maybe, because of such hubbub), the jazz interpretations of seasonal classics proved to be a fun kick-off to the holiday season.
Visit Rusty’s website to read more about his musical and personal missions.