Shades of Jade(ECM/Universal)
Acoustic bassist Marc Johnson's career had an auspicious start in the late seventies as part of the late pianist Bill Evans' trio. Since then, one might get the feeling that Johnson felt much more at home recording with guitarists especially when glancing at his discography. In the mid-80s, Johnson's Bass Desires and Second Sight albums featured guitarists Bill Frisell and John Scofield. He would also spend a fair amount of time with John Abercrombie, and recorded in the nineties pairing up Frisell with Pat Metheny,
What stands out the most about Marc Johnson's latest release, Shades of Jade (ECM/Universal) is the lineup of musicians. He is reunited with Scofield again, whose presence is somewhat subdued. Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, who seems to be popping up everywhere these days, contributes lines that are long and heartfelt without undue sentiment. Ace drummer Joey Baron provides wonderful texture while never losing swing. Even organist Alain Mallet throws in some Leslied layers. But perhaps the great surprise here is the inclusion of pianist Eliane Elias who, in addition to providing some truly great accompaniment, contributing many of the album's compositions and collaborating with Johnson for one. The result is an album of quiet intensity, graced with dark patches and a chilling restraint so typical of the ECM sound. Incidentally, Elias shares the production credit with the ubiquitous Manfred Eicher, label boss and architect (at least in part) of a distinct strand of modern jazz.
The fruits of this collaboration between the pianist and Johnson are evident from the top. "Ton Sur Ton" opens with lightly swinging phrases from Johnson, building the tune with Scofield and Lovano in a tightly harmonized statement which leads to a gorgeous piano solo from Elias and a wide open, introspective slot for Lovano who provides even more impetus to a tune with waters that run still and deep.
Elias contributes four ballads; "Apareceu" and "in 30 Hours" find Lovano, Elias, Johnson and Baron in a quartet setting as all hands hold up the musical structure with the delicacy of hands holding up a house of cards. "Show" and "All Yours" pares the group down to a trio with the former using superb dynamics and feel for drama.
The ballads presented here are as tender as the title track, "Shades of Jade" is spooky and meditative. If one listens with an ear for detail, one can detect a blues-oriented set of changes gradually unfold as Johnson, Elias and Baron provide a hypnotic compound time pulse.
Another Johnson tune, "Blue Nefertiti", is a wry commentary on the Wayne Shorter composition which bore the name of the very same Egyptian queen nearly forty years ago. Scofield returns full of bluesy sardonicism and Elias' lines swing naturally followed by a cantankerous statement from Lovano.
"Since You Asked" finds Johnson in a sensitive duet with drummer Joey Baron, showing why Marc Johnson is one of the finest proponents of his instrument. His improvised lines resonate deeply against Baron's shimmering cymbals. This little patch of minimalism comes in just the right dose to counteract the lushness and density of the other tracks.
"Raise", an almost deadpan gospel shouter, features whirling organ from Alain Mallet with ambling solos and a groove with an attitude from the rhythm section. This number is downright catchy and pumps the adrenalin up a few notches, giving everyone a chance to hang loosely, especially towards the end as Lovano blows a holy ghost dance while Scofield answers with Wes Montgomery-esque octaves.
Shades of Jade closes with "Don't Ask of Me", an Armenian folk song credited to Anton Mailyan, is a stark, yearning track that features Johnson using a bow on his instrument and a meditative pedal drone, closing the door on one hour of eclectic but perceptibly unified group of songs.
Throughout the disc, musical personalities are distinct but not at the expense of very high-level ensemble playing. It is certainly in the idiom of ECM's thirty-six year history of exploratory and thoughtful music, but bringing together musicians who posses such sharply honed skills almost makes who's behind the recording console irrelevant. Those who have followed the career paths of this group of fine musicians will be pleased to hear their respective talents shine while functioning as a creative unit.