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Spotlights [Issue # 18 ]
Marc Johnson: Shades Of Jade

By Jason Sklar

When acclaimed ECM producer Manfred Eicher approached bassist Marc Johnson to record something for his label, Johnson had no working band, so he assembled one from previous jazz gatherings. In an Ellingtonian vein, Johnson collaborated with Eliane Elias to draft and arrange songs that would specifically cater to the sensibilities of tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, guitarist John Scofield, and drummer Joey Baron.

Johnson’s reputation as a player on the scene was established during his tenure as bassist for Bill Evans’ piano trio in 1978-1980. “Creatively, who I am as a musical personality stems largely from the Bill Evans trio,” Johnson says. Inspired by bassist Scott La Faro’s 1961 “Jade Visions” off Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Shades of Jade pays homage to both La Faro and Evans in a patient, yet confident ensemble.

Initially, Johnson was drawn to Evans because the bass always had a versatile role in his groups. But, he is quick to say that others who have filled the bass shoes - Ron Carter, Charles Mingus, Dave Holland, and Charlie Haden - have been great sources of inspiration as well.

Additionally, Johnson’s 1985 recordings with guitarists Bill Frisell and John Scofield in his quartet, Bass Desires, provided great opportunities for pioneering new sounds. With Peter Erskine keeping time on drums, Bass Desires did more than rework standard melodies. They played original compositions and extended forms that carved out dense rhythms for liberating solos. On Shades of Jade, Scofield again steps out of himself just as the other group members do to create beautiful, bluesy and at times dark, thought-provoking music.

“Shades of Jade is a real ensemble piece,” comments Johnson. “There’s no real solo.” As free flowing as the album may sound, much of its structures are pre-planned and measures of improvisation are numbered. “In that sense, the environment was really controlled,” he says. While there is no extended solo in the traditional sense, choruses were allotted and dictated. In turn, players colored inside the lines while at all times remaining free to select new tones and hues. Undeniably, this framework has proven creatively constructive in this setting.

The reverb settings, sequencing, and the instruments’ placement in space relative to their respective recording devices contributed to an exceptionally clean sound on par with other ECM albums. Johnson believes that the label’s reputation for high artistic standards encouraged all those participating in this project to bring an especially attentive sensibility to it. As a result, “the band dedicated themselves to focusing on and sublimating themselves for the sake of the music,” he says.

Johnson, Elias, and Baron worked together as a trio for a while leading up to the recording date. “There are a lot of subtle things we don’t even realize,” he says. “We had been rehearsing the music between and before a lot of other gigs so we were really familiar with the forms and changes by the time it came to record.”

While the dynamic grace of Shades of Jade is rooted in the tight knit trio, it expands and contracts with the entrances and exits of Lovano and Scofield. The instrumentation is intriguing, not merely because it sidesteps a soloist-centered format, but also in its atypical use of sax and guitar in supporting roles of the piano trio.

To a large degree, the album is presented as an augmented piano trio as opposed to a standard quintet (or sextet when Alain Mallet sits in on organ). But even when non-trio players are absent, their role can still be felt lingering in the background of the subsequent song.

Shades Of Jade

Shades Of Jade Marc Johnson Shades Of Jade

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