Marc Johnson – Shades of Jade (2005)

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If you’re at all familiar with jazz bassist Marc Johnson you surely know about his classic 1987 album Second Sight (by his group Bass Desires). On that record, Johnson teamed up with Peter Erskine (drums) and the phenomenal guitar duo of Bill Frisell and John Scofield. Second Sight is the kind of record I like to recommend to jazz neophytes. Rather than putting on a lengthy display of chops, the tunes buoy the melodies and motifs with a bunch of snazzy interplay full of humor and energy. Proof that jazz doesn’t have to be SeriousMusic™.

All of these years later and Johnson is back at it (OK, he never really went away … check out the fabulous 1998 record The Sound Of Summer Running) with a more traditional jazz lineup and sound: John Scofield on guitar, Eliane Elias (piano), Joe Lovano (tenor sax), Alain Mallet (organ) and the phenomenal Joey Baron on drums. This is a serious group of musicians.

Shades of Jade opens with Johnson and Baron setting up the light groove that will support the angular melody. Scofield and Lovano play that head in smart unison before dropping out to allow for a wide-ranging Elias piano solo. Johnson vamps hard under the piano as Baron (the man … he can destroy the kit with Barondown or Naked City while here he plays just the right notes) drops accents all over the place.

I’m embarrassed to admit that, at the time, I owned no Eliane Elias records. That despite her obvious compositional skills (she wrote or co-wrote six of the 10 selections here) to go right along with her talents at the piano. Elias’ strengths as player and composer shine on the romantic “Apareceu,” where her sultry and passionate solo adds real fire. Her touch and phrasing are just exquisite. There are three more Elias-penned ballads here (“In 30 Hours,” “Snow” and “All Yours”). Trust me, that is not too many. I want more.

Johnson, much like the members of his various ensembles, never chooses to flaunt his instrumental prowess. (Hey, I loved Jaco too, but you know what I mean). That’s what makes the bass and drum duet “Since You Asked” so special. While Baron fills out the top end with nothing but cymbals, Johnson plays an Eastern-influenced improvisation over his own pedal tone. Forget all of those “Oh no, not the bass solo!” jokes you heard at band camp, this is it.

A more typical modern jazz sound is on display on the bluesy “Raise.” Everyone is allowed to stretch out and vamp as Alain Mallet’s organ adds a bit of Wes Montgomery trio feel.

For me, the high point of Shades of Jade is the title cut. Johnson and Elias’ sparse modal vamp is slowly fleshed out over the course of over seven minutes by hopeful sax figures, lovely falling leaves piano clusters, attackless guitar tones and endless cymbal accents. Texture … and lots of it. OK, make that two high points: Shades of Jade closes with the Armenian folk song “Don’t Ask Of Me.” While Mallett holds down a single low note, Johnson bows the melody on the double bass. It’s intimate and majestic.

I’m now recommending that jazz neophytes start with a listen to Shades of Jade. Yes, I know — I didn’t even own any Eliane Elias records. You’ll just have to trust me on this.

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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