Marc Johnson: Shades of Jade (ECM 1894)

Shades of Jade

Marc Johnson
Shades of Jade

Joe Lovano tenor saxophone
John Scofield guitar
Eliane Elias piano
Marc Johnson double-bass
Joey Baron drums
Alain Mallet organ
Recorded January and February 2004 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: Joe Ferla
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Elaine Elias

If you had heard only Marc Johnson’s ECM debut with his Bass Desires quartet, you might be forgiven in thinking that the bassist was an extroverted player by default. Yet, listening to his rounded commentaries on such albums as Rosslyn and Class Trip, it’s easy to see how this, his third leader date for the label, reveals in him a tender heart that holds beauty and integrity in highest esteem. Shades of Jade complements his fulsome sound with an even richer tapestry of carefully chosen bandmates, including the painterly and good-humored Joey Baron at the drums, tenorist Joe Lovano, guitarist John Scofield, and, in her debut for the label, Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias (who also produces alongside Manfred Eicher). The result is something as timeless as the set’s opener, “Ton Sur Ton.” It is, along with the title track, co-composed by Johnson and Elias. Both rock a delicate balance of guitar and sax that is smooth, hip, and subtle. The composers, here and throughout, lay the ground in shaded Morse code. Baron splashes delicately around as Scofield and Lovano complete things, clinging leisurely like sunbeams on water’s surface.

With exception of the epilogue, Johnson and Elias individually compose the album’s remaining tunes. To his own, the bassist reaches back to his defining years will Bill Evans through an artful shuffling of touch and go. He is, for the most part, by his pen deferential, as both “Blue Nefertiti” and “Raise” put Scofield in the spotlight, dancing nimbly through the changes. The latter tune adds the organ of Alain Mallet for some flavor. Yet the highlight, of both subset and album, is his bass solo “Since You Asked.” Accompanied by a whisper of cymbals, it is an utterly personal dialogue between deep and deeper.

It is in the context of Elias’s writing that Johnson comes more overtly into his own. Whether through the deep circulation he provides in the trio setting of “Snow” or in the album’s ballad du jour, “All Yours,” he carves out prime singing space amid Elias’s flowing keys. For her part, the composer gets plenty of shine time in her denser moments, as in “Apareceu,” which calculates an even smoother ratio of bread to butter alongside Lovano’s champagne sparkle, and in the curtains of “In 30 Hours” that billow from the wind of a passing memory.

Shades ends with exactly that in the form of a haunting take on the Armenian folk song “Don’t Ask of Me” (a.k.a. Intz Mi Khntrir). Its echoes burn forlorn afterimages into the night. Droning, keening, dreaming. As if the music alone weren’t enough, the album is an engineering gem, managing to bring out inner warmth while retaining all the immediacy of a live set. And in the end, is not immediacy what jazz is all about?

Abercrombie/Johnson/Erskine: s/t (ECM 1390)

 

John Abercrombie
Marc Johnson
Peter Erskine
s/t

John Abercrombie guitar, guitar synthesizer
Marc Johnson bass
Peter Erskine drums
Recorded April 21, 1988 live at the Nightstage, Boston
Engineer: Tony Romano
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After the resounding success of their two studio albums, Current Events and Getting There (with Michael Brecker), guitarist John Abercrombie teamed up with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Peter Erskine for this wondrous live 1988 recording from the Nightstage in Boston. It’s crystal clear from the groove laid down by Johnson and Erskine in the opener, “Furs On Ice” (think Getting There), that each of these men travels the edges of a constantly shifting yet with-it triangle. Abercrombie spins some Frisell-like chording before emerging with a soaring synclavier line in this, one of two Johnson-penned tunes, the other being a trimmed-down version of his “Samurai Hee-Haw” (see Bass Desires). Replacing Bill Frisell and John Scofield is no small order, yet Abercrombie fills these shoes with plenty of funk to spare. That unmistakable bass line, in fact, courts some of the most electrifying improv heard in a while from Abercrombie, who brings a Hammond organist’s sensibility to the proceedings via his fiery macramé. Erskine is also fantastic here. Abercrombie turns up the heat even more on his own two contributions. “Light Beam” is a particularly well-suited vehicle for synth guitar, and indeed seems focused like a laser splashed through the prism of his rhythm section. This is followed by a drum solo from Erskine, who shows us a nifty thing or two from his skill set, particularly in his dialoguing between bass drum and toms, before Abercrombie’s classic “Four On One” (from his seminal 1984 joint, Night) plies its musings and rounded edges with the record’s crunchiest playing. The three continue to converse beautifully in their group improv piece, “Innerplay.” Notable for Johnson’s delightful string games, it is a lasting testament to the powers of spontaneity.

The rest of the set is filled to bursting with a hefty portion of standards. Between Erskine’s delicate rat-a-tat timekeeping in “Stella By Starlight” and the delicacies of “Alice In Wonderland” (into which the rhythm section eases so carefully one feels more than hears it), there is much to stimulate repeated listening. Yet it is in “Beautiful Love” that we find the pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. From the gentlest guitar solo Abercrombie spins a song even as he unravels it into a water-skating journey so gorgeous it almost weeps. The trio’s finest moment and easily one of Abercrombie’s most inspired (and inspiring) improvisatory passages on record. The final “Haunted Heart” almost reaches those same depths, smoothing out an extended guitar intro into a velvety soft ballad that stirs us into a pool of melting chocolate and lets us steep.

A sublime recording from musicians at the top of their game, for a game this most certainly is, played by those who know the rules as well as anyone.

Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires: Second Sight (ECM 1351)

 

Marc Johnson
Second Sight

Marc Johnson bass
Bill Frisell guitar
John Scofield guitar
Peter Erskine drums
Recorded March 1987 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This sophomore effort from Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires comes nowhere near the octane levels of the project’s wild self-titled debut. This doesn’t mean, however, that Second Sight is no less enthralling. Its strength lies in its personnel. Guitarists Bill Frisell and John Scofield seem so well made for each other that, were they not split between the left and right channels, respectively, they might as well be thought of as some bizarre 12-stringed chunk of genius. How can we, for instance, not be moved by the sentiment of “Small Hands” and the resonant eddies of “Sweet Soul”? The latter, with its touch of Pat Metheny brightness, is especially moving. And let us not bypass the unassuming opener, “Crossing The Corpus Callosum.” Here the guitars dance on edge over the rolling hills of Peter Erskine’s drums and Johnson’s bass. The wealth of extended textures opens vista upon vista of possibility. Frisell is downright glowing in “1951,” which might as well have been an outtake from Naked City’s Radio. A dreamy slice of nostalgia pie if there ever was one, it comes served piping hot with a dollop of electric ice cream to boot. The solos are three-dimensional.

Lest we think this is all too ponderous, Scofield livens the proceedings with an invigorating twofer. The Richard Thompon-esque rhythm guitar in “Twister” is the set’s most spirited. Frisell and Scofield add to each other’s fire as they unabashedly scale the diminished seventh ladder (think Beatles), splitting off into the groovier weave of “Thrill Seekers.” Scofield rules with his solo here, while Frisell winds some of his most insectile threads in the background before slingshotting stardust back through the atmosphere. The band recedes for a fragile solo from Johnson before playing out on the vamp. The jauntiness of this number is superbly contrasted by “Prayer Beads,” a monologue from Johnson, who closes the door with “Hymn For Her.” This last is a dream within a dream. It feels like watching life through a veil of trickling water and finding that hope is already beside you, that its forgiving melodies flow both into and from the heart.

A note on the cover: the helicopter is a foil. Without it, the beach is just a beach. With it, the beach begs to be appreciated.

Marc Johnson: Bass Desires (ECM 1299)

 

Marc Johnson
Bass Desires

Marc Johnson bass
Bill Frisell guitar, guitar synthesizer
John Scofield guitar
Peter Erskine drums
Recorded May 1985 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“Samurai Hee-Haw,” the opening track of Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires, is one of the most memorable cuts in the ECM catalogue and a signature one for this transient project. Yet beyond its leader’s deeply rooted bass and Peter Erskine’s key-to-lock drumming, the pairing of Bill Frisell and John Scofield is what truly sets this firecracker a-sparkle. Their combined forces are enough to make one dizzy, and more than once they slip past our expectations by the skin of their teeth. Perhaps nothing could bear the weight of this resounding call to electric arms more confidently than a movement lifted from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Hence “Resolution,” a groovy flower in which Erskine proves his own mettle with a tripped out solo against the metal string game being woven before him. The band turns the tables once more with the keening “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair.” This Appalachian folk song of Scottish origin finds not new but old life in the stretch of sonic hallway down which it is led. Lest we fall too deeply into elegy, the title track counters with rip-roaring fun. Erskine and Johnson lay down plenty of traction to spare as the two pickers fry the ether with their song. Elmer Bernstein’s “A Wishing Doll” sports a dancing Synclavier that can’t help but put one in mind of Pat Metheny. Flip a switch, though, and suddenly we’re riding Johnson’s “Mojo Highway,” of which the reggae-ish beat and lumpy bass complement smoldering mood swings from guitars.

This is a must for any ECM lover’s collection and ranks among the best of the Touchstones series. Like the title of Scofield’s “Thanks Again” that ends it, it holds up as a sprawling love letter to those on either end of the musical stick.