Marc Johnson Photo

Making a solo bass album, says Marc Johnson, was “a long time coming, but it was something I always wanted to do.” A busy schedule of touring and recording—his lengthy discography includes more than 150 albums—kept the 67-year-old bassist from getting to that project for years. Then, early in 2018, Johnson was in Sao Paulo with his wife, Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias, and everything came together. He had a few days open and access to NaCena Studio and its excellent engineer, Rodrigo de Castro Lopes. Elias was also on hand, as his co-producer, and Johnson did the sessions that yielded his solo album, Overpass, which was released on ECM Records on August 27th.

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Johnson played a bass made by the Brazilian luthier Paulo Gomes. “It’s the one that he rents out to players when they come to town,” explains Johnson. “A lot of great bass players have played it; Ron Carter knows that bass, classical player Gary Karr knows that bass. What I love about the instrument is that it’s very even throughout all the registers— even and full sounding.” Before he began recording, Johnson didn’t do anything to the bass other than wipe off the Weich strings and adjust the string height.

The album’s eight tracks were cut in a day and a half. Although they began with four inputs—a pickup and three microphones—only two microphone inputs were used in the final mix. “Most engineers want to get the mics pretty close to the bass,” says Johnson. “They put one facing my hands, up on the fingerboard, and another down low, in front of the body. But Rodrigo put them six to seven feet away from me, at different heights. That sounded pretty darn good in the booth, so I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it like that.’” Johnson played in a large, wood-paneled room, and the combination of the microphone placement and the spacious room gives his bass a big, warm, expansive sound on the album. It’s as if you’re sitting right in front of him as he plays.

All of the tracks were recorded with the bass in standard tuning, and there are no studio effects or enhancements other than overdubs on two tunes. It’s just Marc and the bass. “One of the solutions I wanted to try to arrive at,” he says, “was to give as full a musical experience as I could with four strings.”

Each piece is drawn from or reflects an aspect of Johnson’s life and career. The first, an improvisation on “Freedom Jazz Dance” by Eddie Harris, goes back to his teenage years, when he was studying cello. “The first time I heard the tune was when I was 13 years old and bought Miles Smiles,” says Johnson. “I didn’t know who Miles Davis was. I didn’t know anything about jazz, and I wasn’t a bass player for another three years. I got that record for my father, for Father’s Day. He was a jazz buff and a jazz pianist and a music educator. I saw that record in a bin and I was with my brother, whose name is Miles.” Johnson says he’s played the tune for many years, building his own interpretation while listening to the work of other bassists. In this solo version, he notes, “there’s a Ron Carter quote in there—that little arpeggiated dee-dee-doot dee-dee-deet. I do it twice. That’s intentional, to say, ‘Hi, Ron. Thank you.’” He also cites the version by Miroslav Vitous on Mountain in the Clouds (Atlantic) as an early influence.

The second track is “Nardis,” a Miles Davis composition strongly associated with Bill Evans, with whom Johnson worked from 1978 until the pianist’s death in 1980. “We played that tune every night,” recalls Johnson. “It was our closer, and Bill set it up for everybody to solo unaccompanied. That’s how that started for me—solo bass in front of an audience: what can I do to make a musical statement?” Johnson describes his improvisation on the tune as “a distillation of all the vocabulary I’m using on the album. It’s melodic, it’s introspective, it explores tensions and resolutions, it adheres to a structure, and it has this dancing, rhythmic element that’s not as melodic and kind of a drum-oriented thing.”

The third piece is “Samurai Fly,” which traces its origin to Johnson’s tune “Samurai Hee-Haw,” which he wrote for his much-admired group Bass Desires, with drummer Peter Erskine and guitarists John Scofield and Bill Frisell. It appeared on their eponymous first album on ECM in 1986. This is one of the pieces where he overdubbed, with an Eastern-sounding arco melody and also a high “buzzing” arco part (thus the name) as well as pizzicato. “The arco thing,” says Johnson, “just gives it a different color and texture—the possibility for something else.”

Up next is “Love Theme from Spartacus” by Alex North, another tune favored by Bill Evans. It’s a tour-de-force improvisation, slower and more contemplative than the first three pieces. “I always loved that melody,” says Johnson. “That A-Major-7 chord. I just love that sound, those intervals–the high G# on top, the C# a fifth below that and the open A string. How they resonate, especially on that bass. And the chordal thing that I did—anybody who knows bass will know where I derive certain things from, and I don’t mind giving it up to my heroes. There’s a little Eddie Gomez in there. ‘Thank you, Eddie. I love you.’” 

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Gomez preceded Johnson in the Bill Evans Trio, playing with the pianist from 1966 to 1977. In an earlier interview, Johnson told me about seeing Gomez with Evans while he was still in high school: “It was the first time I’d ever seen a jazz bass player, and I was astounded. I walked away saying, ‘Will I ever be able to do that?’ I felt frustrated but I also had a goal.”

The fifth track is called “Life of Pai,” and Johnson says it was the first thing he played in the sessions: “It was just an improvisation that arrived on the scene that day.” Aside from being a play on the title of The Life of Pi by Yann Martel—“a lovely novel that speaks to a spiritual quest that all of us are on”—the piece drew inspiration from Johnson’s relationship with his father, who had died a year before. “And then, after the recording was made,” he says, “my wife’s father passed away too, two months later. That descending line, the descending double-stops, has a dirge-like feeling, like a requiem almost. The word ‘pai’ is father in Portuguese, so I titled it ‘Life of Pai’ in honor of my father and father-in-law.”

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Johnson’s other parent is honored by the next piece, “And Strike Each Tuneful String,” which is a line from the folk hymn “Wondrous Love.” He says that his mother sang in the church choir “and that particular melody was one of her favorites. So I chose it as another way to allude to where I came from.” He had previously reworked the melody for a tune called “Prayer Beads,” which is on the second Bass Desires album, Second Sight (ECM). “It’s the same idea, to take that melody as a place to go, but I surrounded it with this improvisation. When I’m alone with the bass, I often get into this kind of playing—this repetitive, meditative thing. Let it go and see where it goes. The idea behind the piece is to get a motif going that I can control and repeat at will. Let it flow and then gradually it can either morph into something else or another motif will present itself and I’ll hang with that and then go back to the first motif. It’s almost like a Calder mobile where you have these different shapes that hang together on a central axis, that are kind of in their own orbit, spinning at different rates, but it’s all one thing.”

The penultimate piece is “Yin and Yang,” which was inspired by the Paulo Gomes bass itself. “I got into this strumming thing one day,” recalls Johnson, “and I said, ‘Wow, listen to that.’ I put my ear down in front of the instrument and hit all the strings—when you hear all the harmonics bouncing off each other, it’s really cool.” Johnson used those strums to create the foundation of the piece and then overdubbed an arco melody punctuated by high, whistling sounds—“those little effects, they sound like bird calls or the wind or something.”

The album closes with “Whorled Whirled World,” a nod toward minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, whose work Johnson admires. The piece is based on a series of rapid, repeated patterns, which create a swirling effect that slowly shifts as it moves forward. “It’s improvised, so I’m not thinking about anything except grabbing a pattern and repeating it,” says Johnson. “Theorists might say, ‘Oh, he’s playing in six’ or ‘Now he’s in seven’ or ‘He dropped a beat there.’ But it’s not that precise. For me, it’s an effect more than anything. It’s a fun way to play, and it’s an interesting thing that one can get out on the instrument. Again, for me, it’s meditative.” Rather than coming to a close, the piece fades, implying a continuity that stretches beyond the end of the album. It’s a fitting way to conclude to an exceptional piece of work, one that should stand the test of time as one of the truly great solo bass recordings.

Postscript: Marc Johnson had planned to go on an extensive tour this fall with the Eliane Elias Quartet. His wife also has a new release called Mirror, Mirror (Candid), a recording of piano duets with Chick Corea and Chucho Valdés, and they are planning to feature music from both albums in live performance. Unfortunately, the European leg had to be postponed because of the continuing difficulties of traveling between countries during the pandemic, although a series of U.S. dates is starting soon. [Check elianeelias.com for updates.] “It’s been rough,” concedes Johnson. “It’s not fun to not be performing. It’s what we love to do.” –BM