The album’s title has biographical significance. Marc Johnson first came to the attention of players and listeners around the world as the bassist with Bill Evans’ last great piano trio in the period 1978-80. The title track of Johnson’s new album “Shades of Jade” was inspired by the bassist in the first of Evans’ great trios, Scott La Faro, whose “Jade Visions”, on 1961’s “Sunday At The Village Vanguard” provided an object lesson in how intensity could be focused in inward-looking music, of enduring beauty.
Johnson’s ECM debut recordings, in 1985, were with his own Bass Desires quartet, foregrounding the guitars of Bill Frisell and John Scofield – a group frequently as outgoing as the Evans trio was introverted – and as a member of John Abercrombie’s trio. “Shades of Jade” is only Johnson’s third leader date for the label, but he has been an important contributor to many ECM recordings. His list of session credits for the label includes albums with Ralph Towner (“Lost and Found”), pianist John Taylor (“Rosslyn”), saxophonist Charles Lloyd (“Lift Every Voice”) and bandoneon master Dino Saluzzi (“Cité de la Musique”). He continues to be associated with John Abercrombie and appears on his most recent discs, “Cat’n’Mouse” and “Class Trip”. In all of these contexts his touch and tone and advanced harmonic understanding are well-deployed.
“Shades of Jade”, a mature jazz album, with a classic, timeless feel, makes sense of the range of Johnson’s experience, and stresses his compositional skills. It also features one of the most melodically-inventive pianists in modern jazz in Eliane Elias, the CD’s other primary composer. Restlessly-inventive drummer Joey Baron rounds out the core trio; tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano adds his own inimitable shading and solos of profundity, and guitarist John Scofield, always an exciting player, renews acquaintances 20 years after recording on Johnson’s “Bass Desires”.
Produced by Elias and Manfred Eicher at New York’s Avatar Studios, “Shades of Jade” combines Johnson’s love for both piano and guitar, using group interplay with Scofield and Lovano to expand the piano trio format. On the opening Johnson-Elias composition “Ton Sur Ton,” a bass intro and Baron’s brushwork lead to harmonized lines between Scofield and Lovano. Elias enters two minutes later, combining eloquence and power through one of her linear solos. The La Faro-influenced title track, the disc’s other co-composed piece, bears the stamp of the Evans trio through Johnson's 6/8-timed pulse, Baron's shimmering cymbals, and Elias’ melodic nuances.
Born in Brazil, Elias arrived in New York City in 1981 and astonished local players with her pianistic fluency. Her recent, and highly successful, solo recordings have strengthened her reputation as a vocalist. Shades of Jade, however, spotlights the musician who joined the original acoustic line-up of Steps Ahead shortly after her arrival. Elias contributes four introspective compositions that showcase her idiosyncratic jazz vocabulary, drawing on both North American and Brazilian music. (Elias has also recorded ‘classical’ repertoire from Bach to Chopin and Ravel for EMI Classics). The Elias compositions “Snow” and “All Yours” – which features a stately solo by Johnson – are piano trio settings for her haunting melodies, harmonic sense, and exquisite touch. The pianist sounds more self-assured than ever before. “She’s so versatile, and so deep a talent,” Johnson says. “She can do just about anything, and do it really well. We’ve been playing together for so long that there are little subtle things between us that you can’t even measure; a chemistry from playing for so many years. And writing together means the record really has Eliane’s stamp on it.”
Johnson composed “Blue Nefertiti” with Scofield in mind, and the guitarist contributes an appropriately bluesy solo to the swinging, mid-tempo piece. The bassist’s slow “Since You Asked” is a powerful improvisation with Baron. “Raise”, a nod to another mighty bassist, Ray Brown, raises the tempo while adding organist Alain Mallet for texture. On the entrancing closer, “Don't Ask of Me”, an Armenian folk song otherwise known as “Intz Mi Khntrir”, Johnson bows the bass in its upper register while Mallet makes another cameo to add droning keyboard effects.
”That's a sort of pedal ostinato that I play over”, Johnson says of Mallet’s foundation, “and a sort of closing benediction. Alain’s a really proficient keyboardist on the New York and Boston scenes, and I really wanted to hear organ on those pieces. He sounded great.”
“Shades of Jade” gives an index of Johnson’s versatility, from ballads and blues to piano trio jazz and chamber music. His chemistry with Elias and Baron is undeniable, and partly the result of much touring together as a trio. Lovano – who met Johnson in 1977 when the bassist was on the road with Woody Herman’s Young Thundering Herd – and Scofield are respected bandleaders and long-time cohorts who unselfishly become sidemen for the good of the ensemble. “Shades of Jade” may look like a collective of all-stars on paper, but the music is that of a united, intuitive band.
Marc Johnson was born in Nebraska in 1953, and grew up in Texas. At 19 he was working professionally with the Fort Worth Symphony, and while at North Texas State he played and recorded with fellow student Lyle Mays. His many recording credits since then include discs with Joe Lovano, Michael Brecker, Stan Getz, Bob Brookmeyer, Gary Burton, Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny, Ben Monder, Enrico Pieranunzi, Eliane Elias, Philly Joe Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Peter Erskine, Paul Motian, and others.
“Shades of Jade” brings Marc Johnson back as a leader, and, most convincingly, unveils his latest bass desires.