Marc Johnson ‘Overpass’ CD (ECM) 4/5

Nebraska born bassist Marc Johnson has one of the most impressive resumes in the book. Performing in the late 70s as a member of Bill Evans’ last trio, his musical adventures have stretched far and wide throughout an extremely fruitful career. Recordings with Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano and Paul Motion are just a few of many notable highlights. His first ECM recordings were with his own Bass Desires quartet, who released two important albums, Bass Desires, and Second Sight. The bassist subsequently recorded for the label as a member of John Abercrombie’s trio and has also contributed on other ECM albums by Ralph Towner, John Taylor, Charles Lloyd and Dino Saluzzi. Johnson’s own ECM leader dates have featured Eliane Elias, Joe Lovano, Joey Baron and John Scofield.

With “Overpass”, the bassist now makes an intriguing and decisive contribution to ECM’s solo bass recordings. It is an album that takes note of that tradition – Johnson has said that Dave Holland’s Emerald Tears was among the solo recordings that fired his imagination almost half a century ago – and builds upon it in a personal and imaginative way. As with Larry Grenadier’s 2019 release The Gleaners, I find it fascinating to listen to a bassist perform in such an intimate way. If performing as the backbone (and sometimes leader) in a band, allows a bassist to be the pulse of the music, the heartbeat if you like, then a solo session such as this really does let them bare their soul – as scary as that might sound.

As one might expect “Overpass” has a very personal feel to it. The sound of the bass and the quality of the recording is stunning. Johnson’s journeys around the globe have sometimes led to remarkable meetings with remarkable instruments. In São Paulo he came across a prizewinning bass made by luthier Paulo Gomes that subsequently became his instrument of choice each time he was in the region. Recorded in January and February 2018 at Nacena Studios in São Paulo, the full-bodied sound of the bass resonates beautifully throughout “Overpass”, obviously inspiring the bassist to improvise and experiment on the tunes he chose to perform.

To my ears, Johnson’s bass playing has always benefitted from a natural lyricism that few other bassists come close to. This is particularly evident on many of the pieces performed on “Overpass”. The Miles Davis tune “Nardis”, long associated with Bill Evans’ trio, is revisited and reimagined here. As Johnson points out, “Nardis is where solo bass explorations all started for me and this performance distils much of the conception and vocabulary I am using throughout this album.” A fitting piece to perform then. The opener “Freedom Jazz Dance” pulses with a life of its own, energised and improvisational. Johnson’s solo performance of “Love Theme From Spartacus” is one of the highlights of the album, finding new beauty from old, wonderfully crafted and engaging. There are five originals on the session which feature the bassist creating many moods and atmospheres. None more so than on the wonderful “Samurai Fly” with Johnson using intelligent overdubs to create a perfect harmony and magical interaction between bowed bass and soloing. “Life of Pi” is more contemplative and esoteric, and “Yin and Yang”, once again combining bowed bass and solo, chordal bass structures, is deep and resonant, beguiling in its own Eastern-style narrative. Of “Strike Each Tuneful String” the composer says, “In the early 80’s I made a conscious choice to try to bring something primal to my sound and conception of playing.” This clearly comes across on this piece, with its various hypnotic patterns and harmonics delving deep into the body of the bass itself. Johnson’s music has long been open to influence from multiple sources, and the closing track “Whorled Whirled World” reminds me of the kind of groove pianist Keith Jarrett would get into on one of his spontaneous solo performances. Mesmeric in nature, it’s almost as if the groove gets hold of the performer and just won’t let go.

“Overpass” is a worthy addition to ECM’s output of solo bass recordings, one that will undoubtedly delight bass players and ignite a spark in general listeners alike.

Mike Gates