Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Double Bass Virtuoso Marc Johnson Plays it Solo on his brilliant : "Overpass"

Marc Johnson: Overpass ECM Records

There is something very special, very visceral when a listener is given the opportunity to share a solo musical performance. It can be one of the most personal and intimate experiences that a musician can offer to his audience. Marc Johnson was said to have found inspiration to do his latest solo bass album Overpass after listening to fellow bass virtuoso Dave Holland's solo bass album Emerald Tears from 1977. Johnson's beautiful offering Overpass on ECM records, like Holland's, will clearly become another must-have inspiration to any musician who wants to tackle the formidable challenge of making a viable solo offering on such a beautiful but unforgiving instrument. 

Marc Johnson photo credit Jos Knapean

The album is bare, naked, and yet resplendent in its musical sensitivity and personal declarations. The bassist relies only on his skills, his instrument, and an internal compass that leads him to choose and interpret his musical selections so deftly. The album is a little over forty-three minutes and includes eight compositions that range from Eddie Harris’ stirring “Freedom Jazz Dance” to Miles Davis’ “Nardis” and Alex North’s moving “Love Theme from Spartacus,” the latter two made famous as standards in the Bill Evans’ repertoire. Johnson includes five of his own compositions that are both beautiful and deeply personal, “Samurai Fly,” “Life of Pai, ”And Strike Each Tuneful String,” “Yin and Yang,” and “Whorled, Whirled World.”

Bassist Marc Johnson was born in the heartland of America, Omaha, Nebraska, and grew up in Texas. He attended the then North Texas State University and was part of the school’s acclaimed One O’clock Lab Band with fellow alumni keyboardist Lyle Mays and drummer Steve Houghton. Mays and Houghton were enlisted into Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd, and later it was Mays who recommended Johnson to join Herman’s band. Mays stayed eight months with Herman before leaving to join with guitarist Pat Metheny and forming the Pat Metheny Group. Johnson’s stay with Herman brought him to NYC where an opportunity to sit in with the pianist Bill Evans resulted in his joining Evans trio in 1978. Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera would be the pianist’s last trio until his death in 1980.

By his own admission, Johnson was young and had limited experience when he joined Evans’ trio, but he had a fluidity, velocity, and melodic sensitivity that captured Evans’ attention. After Evans’ death, Johnson had to find a way to expand his growth and continue in the musical direction that he had only begun to explore in his brief time with the pianist. Instead of continuing in a piano-based configuration, Johnson looked toward forming a group that could change his musical pallet,  expanding on the group's musical possibilities. In 1996 he formed the influential Bass Desires with dual guitarists John Scofield and Bill Frisell and the drummer Peter Erskine. He also became part of guitarist John Abercrombie’s Trio, again with Peter Erskine in the mid-eighties and through 2007. One of my favorite albums of this group was November released in 1993. Johnson’s proclivity and skill for working with guitarists led him to be sought after by other notable guitarists including Pat Metheny, Ben Monder, Pat Martino, Ralph Towner, and Wolfgang Muthspiel.

Johnson’s proficiency on his instrument led him to work with a rainbow of musical artists including pianist Enrico Pieranunzi and saxophonists Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano, Charles Llyod, Michael Brecker, John Surman, and drummers Jack DeJohnette, Paul Motion, Joey Baron and Armenian percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan to name a few.

It was in 1988 when Johnson first worked with his present wife, Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias. It was an Erskine project titled Motion Poet. A few years later he was asked to join Elias’ group and their musical and personal compatibility led to marriage in 1999. It has been a lasting relationship for over thirty years. His musical priorities since joining Elias once again changed back to working with a pianist. Johnson said in a Jazz Times interview from 2020 “My Musical choices ... have been dictated by prioritizing my work with Eliane…It’s wonderful that we can be together and play music together."" For me, it’s been the best of both worlds.”  

Johnson’s focus on his work with Elias has come with a greater appreciation for the important influence of Brazilian music. He has won two Grammys for co-producing Elias’ Made in Brazil (2016) and Dance of Time (2017.)

With all his achievements, Johnson’s work on Overpass is a welcome addition to his personal body of work. The album opens with the pulsing Eddie Harris composition “Freedom Jazz Dance,” an often-overlooked gem of free spirit. He does an incredible job of maintaining pace with throbbing pedal point and dances out the melody with liquid precision and enviable precise speed. It is no surprise that even alone, the bass in the right hands can really swing.

“Nardis” is a Miles Davis composition. The title was created by Davis reversing the last name of his friend Ben Sidran and was written for a 1958 Cannonball Adderley session Portrait of Cannonball. The tune was well explored by Bill Evans’ last trio. Here the bassist, perhaps under the spell of Evans’ preoccupation with the song’s many intriguing iterations, explores the composition on his own terms. Johnson uses his sonorous bass to create a drone. He juxtaposes a musical path through the sparse melody with his rich pizzicato facility and his inventive interpretation. His tone is deep, warm, and resonates with a sustain that hangs in the air like a warm gust from a sirocco.  The bassist creates an impressive meditative chant that will not be forgotten.

Johnson’s beautifully playful “Samurai Fly” is a reimagining of what he originally released as “Samurai Hew-Haw” on his Bass Desires album from 1986.  Here, without the distinctive dual voices of guitarists John Scofield and Bill Frisell, the bassist re-creates this East meets West song. He gently overdubs himself playing a dynamic lead on a slightly dissonant, almost buzzing arco. It at times reminds me of an Americana-style fiddle-like approach and he accompanies himself with an anchoring rhythmic pizzicato. The song conjures up fanciful visions of a militant Samurai fly that is buzzing defiantly to this east meets west war song. Priceless.

“Love Theme from Spartacus” was a theme from the Stanley Kubrick film Spartacus starring Kirk Douglas back in 1960 and was written by composer Alex North. Yuseff Lateef was apparently the first jazz musician to see the potential of this song in the genre, recording it on his oboe in 1961 on his album Eastern Sounds.  Bill Evans had purportedly gone to see the film several times and was taken by the beauty of the music. There is no doubt he made the song an important part of his repertoire, most famously being memorialized from his solo album Conversations with Myself from 1963. 

Marc Johnson finds this moving piece of music the perfect vehicle for his own singularly personal interpretation of this love ballad. It’s hard to imagine such a seminal love theme could be so well expressed by the single voice of a virtuosic double bassist, but Johnson makes it his own. He starts with several multiple-string plucks that set the stage. The sparse ringing of his decaying notes on the repeating theme resonates with sincerity and his playing barely waivers from the truth of the music’s original iconic essence.   

Johnson's composition “Life of Pai” is a dirge-like song that he has dedicated to the passing of both his father and his father-in-law. Sadly both transitioned within months of each other. “Pai” is Portuguese for father and thus " Life of Father." The music utilizes a somber descending feel, sometimes using multiple strings in tandem, and Johnson creates a solemnity that might be considered a sacred requiem.

“And Strike Each Tuneful String” is based on a folk song, “Wonderous Love,” that Johnson's mother used to sing in a church choir. Using these personal recollections- tiebacks to his life experiences and his upbringing- makes his music a living, breathing, DNA-like part of his creative process. You hear the bassist building on ideas, motifs that inspire him, and he expands on them like a meditation that he follows religiously to see what develops. During the process, other ideas emerge, other patterns are introduced, further extrapolations are developed and the music expands organically. Johnson creates a rapidly repeated pattern on his bass that hums, whirls, and vibrates like a turbine in action. There is a visceral connection to the turbulence he creates on his bass patterns that can draw you in, hypnotize you.

“Yin and Yang” is a song developed by Johnson when he was working on experimenting with the sonic aspects of his custom-made double bass made by the Brazilian luthier Paulo Gomes. In his interview with Bass Magazine, which was so valuable to understanding the bassist's thoughts about this album,  Johnson said “I got into this strumming thing one day and I said ‘Wow, listen to that.’  I put my ear down in front of the instrument and hit all the strings-when you hear all the harmonics bouncing off each other, it’s really cool.” 

Johnson strumming created this drone-like, harmonically rich background that has drum-like qualities. He overdubbed his Eastern-influenced arco to create this contemplative composition. Take a seat in a comfortable recliner, grab a set of good headphones and just lose yourself into this one. Guaranteed to lower your stress and blood pressure and leave you at peace for a little over four precious minutes.

The closing composition “Whorled, Whirled World” has a minimalist form that Johnson created in admiration of such composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The bassist opens with a repeating, cyclical pattern that creates a whirl-like rush. He changes between time signatures without ever losing the flow. He minimally accentuates the whirlwind with improvisational accents that he creates in the moment. There is a feeling that more than one person is creating this gyroscopic-like storm, but it is only Johnson and his marvelous instrument. He modulates his velocity at times and eventually allows the music to fade out at the coda. He creates the impression that this energy-charged musical pattern has a perpetual life all its own.

You can sample some of the music of this great album by going to the ECM:

You can also sample some of the music of this great album by going to the ECM: