It’s more than 50 years since Barre Phillips made what I think was the first purely solo album by a jazz bassist. Since then there has been not exactly a flood of emulators, but certainly a steady stream, including albums by Dave Holland, Gary Peacock, Henry Grimes and John Edwards. I can think of lots of other bass players I’d like to have heard from in an extended unaccompanied setting, principally Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden.
Mingus would probably have responded to the idea, but died before such a thing would have seemed like a serious proposition. Haden, however, must have had many opportunities, not least because he often recorded for ECM, whose founder and producer, Manfred Eicher, was himself a bass-player and is a sort of patron saint of solo bass albums. But I guess Charlie, who recorded many times in a duo setting, saw music essentially as a conversation.
I thought of him, and sometimes of Mingus, too, while listening Marc Johnson’s new solo album, Overpass. There’s a weight to these eight pieces, a thoughtful lyricism and a very human sound on the instrument that link him to those forebears, along with a similar disinclination to show that he can make his fingers race up and down that long fingerboard in order to create horn-like lines. For Johnson, the bass isn’t a trumpet or a saxophone. It’s a bass, with its own values, virtues and character.
Johnson came to prominence as the bassist in Bill Evans’s last trio and has since played and recorded prolifically, often with the guitarists John Abercrombie, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Pat Martino, Wolfgang Muthspiel and Pat Metheny and the pianists Eliane Elias, who is his wife, John Lewis, Lyle Mays and Enrico Pierannunzi. Overpass, recorded in a São Paulo studio, is his fifth album for ECM, and his first solo effort.
Unusually for the genre, it doesn’t consist entirely of original compositions and/or free improvisations. Five of the pieces are by Johnson, but he kicks off with versions of Eddie Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance” and Miles Davis’s “Nardis” and also includes Alex North’s lovely “Love Theme from Spartacus“. These are all familiar themes, perhaps over-familiar (and two of them were staples of Evans’ repertoire), but in Johnson’s hands they’re transformed into pieces that sit perfectly within the whole 43-minute sequence.
His own compositions include “And Strike Each Tuneful String”, where he starts with deliberate low thrums which mutate into a fast-running river of notes influenced by Burundi rhythms, and “Whorled Whirled World”, where he shows how he build a phenomenal momentum over eight and a half minutes without showing off. Two pieces stretch the solo format by using overdubs: “Samurai Fly”, in which two arco lines run above pizzicato ground figures, and “Yin and Yang”, where the single plucked and bowed voices answer each other with a meditative gravity. “Life of Pai” illustrates the beauty and consistency of his tone and the ardour of his phasing, punctuated by passages of double stops moving against a ground note.
That’s the anatomy of it, roughly, but in this case the overall impression is what counts for more than the detail. Marc Johnson has made an album in which a single instrument acts as the filter for profound emotions, exploring a range of techniques and trajectories with a coherent voice. Solo bass albums probably aren’t for everybody, but this is one that comes as a friend.
* Marc Johnson’s Overpass is out now on the ECM label. The photograph of Johnson is by Roy Borghouts.