Marc Johnson: Shades of Jade

Marc Johnson
Shades of Jade

Marc Johnson records infrequently, but his limited discography as a leader is a monster. His first two albums were quartet dates on ECM featuring the twinned guitars of Bill Frisell and John Scofield (a band usually referred to by the name of the first disc, Bass Desires). The third replaced Scofield with Pat Metheny and drummer Peter Erskine with Joey Baron. These three sessions, spanning a dozen years, maintained a remarkably similar vision — wide open harmonies framing tunes that combine folk simplicity with memorable jazz twists and turns. That these tunes were expressed by pianoless, two-guitar ensembles (essentially rock instrumentation) helped to distinguish them from typical “jazz” record dates.

Now — some eight years since the last Bass Desires outing — the instrumentation is different and the results are — predictably? — more spotty. There are several different approaches evident here — hopping swingers, dead-tempo ballads, momentum-gaining trios, and over-earnest bass features. Despite the brilliant musicianship here, the whole is considerably less than the sum of its parts.

Mr. Johnson has assembled an all-star group: Joe Lovano on tenor, Mr. Scofield and Mr. Baron again on guitar and drums, and — most notably — Eliane Elias on piano. While Mssrs. Scofield, Lovano and Baron turn in typically tasty and soulful performances, Ms. Elias is essentially given a co-starring role with Mr. Johnson. They co-wrote two tunes and she wrote four others — and she co-produced the session with Manfred Eicher. She plays with sensitivity and melodic grace on every song. While Ms. Elias has recorded a bevy of strong albums over the years (recently featuring her perfectly nice bossa nova singing style), this is her strongest work on record.

A common complaint about jazz recordings on the ECM label is that Mr. Eicher imposes a forced quietude on the proceedings, resulting in a catalog of painfully beautiful records — records without the rhythmic vitality and snap that jazz routinely ought to exhibit. Shades of Jade certainly has its lush, ECM moments, but it is far from a shimmering Scandinavian iceberg. The opener, “Ton Sur Ton”, is lightly swung but jaunty, with Lovano and Scofield playing in tart harmony. Elias gets the first solo, and she plays long single-note lines with only minimal chording — sounding like a lean and blue-drenched horn player. She plays minimally (and Scofield not at all) under Lovano’s squiggling solo. The overall effect is wide-open (a phrase you come back to when listening to Johnson) but more late-night than is expected. This is a disc that dares to swing.

A couple other tunes follow in this vein. “Blue Nefertiti” is a composition that combines some soulful licks with quotations from Wayne Shorter’s classic composition for Miles’ quintet (“Nefertiti”). Scofield plucks with witty force, setting up Elias’s solo — pungent and original while still directly referencing the style of Herbie Hancock (who played on the original Shorter tune). “Raise” is more directly soulful, adding Alain Mallet’s organ to the group under a rising Johnson-penned melody that pushes the whole band to growling fun.

Still, the heart of the disc is in its ballads. The two trio tunes (for Elias, Johnson, and Baron) have great balance and grace, but they sound somewhat alike at first. “Show” places Elias’s solo first, and it builds steam steadily before allowing Johnson to solo over an out-chorus. “All Yours” features a similar melody, but allows Johnson to solo — in his typically stately way — first. The ballads that feature Mr. Lovano are more varied and successful. “Apareceu” is for quartet (without Mr. Scofield) and shows Lovano and Elias to be natural partners. Her playing beneath his light tenor sound is just about perfect. The title track, “Shades of Jade”, adds guitar to the atmospheric mix and seems like a particularly beautiful piece of tone poem — the bass and piano pulsing like waves against a beach while guitar and tenor place layered long tones over the top. It feels less like a “jazz tune” than a through-composed piece of modern music. “In 30 Hours” by Ms. Elias mimics a Keith Jarrett meditation, and it finds Joey Baron in top form, coloring the backgrounds for acute highlight and edge.

This is a bass player’s record, so it’s not too surprising to find two outright features for the bass. “Since You Asked” is a duet for Baron and Johnson, with the drummer in many ways stealing the scene by creating vivid landscapes of cymbals to set off Johnson’s remarkable playing. “Don’t Ask of Me” is an Armenian folk song that Johnson bows in his instrument’s upper register — like a final benediction for the album.

Though I’ve never heard Eliane Elias play with such varied grace, the variations in tone and approach that define this album aren’t for the best. More of Ms. Elias’s ballad playing would have been great. More of the tart interaction between Mr. Lovano and Mr, Scofield is always welcome. More atmospheric drumming from Mr. Baron is a plus. But the mere snatches of each on Shades of Jade make for a fine but not remarkable listening experience.

RATING 6 / 10