Pity bassist Marc Johnson. He was an integral part of Bill Evans' trio during the pianist's final year, an extraordinary valedictory culminating in two monumental sets, Last Waltz
(Fantasy, 1980/2002), only to be orphaned upon the pianist's sudden death at the completion of those remarkable recordings. There would be no one to take the place of Bill Evans, but approximately ten years later Johnson would record with a brilliant young pianist who was, at least to those in the know, the next best thingDave Catney (Jade Visions
, Justice Records, 1991)only to be re-orphaned when the emerging prodigy succumbed to AIDS.
In recent years the bassist has been teaming up with Enrico Pieranunzi (Trasnoche, Egea Records, 2003; Play Morricone, CamJazz, 2002), a pianist who has less in common with Evans' late volcanic expressionism or Catney's effervescent impressionism than the crystalline classicism of the late John Lewis (Evolution I, Atlantic, 1999, and Evolution II, Atlantic, 2001), with whom Johnson also recorded.
Ballads is a collection that's impossible to dislikehave no fear of playing it in the presence of thoughtful or refined company, whatever their musical tastes. But don't be fooled. This is music that repays attentive listening, even though the frequent minor modalities, suspended meters, and mono-toned, languorous mood will make it difficult to absorb the program in one continuous sitting. (Apart from the two standards, I would practically defy the most intent listener to identify the songs after a single hearing.)
Pieranunzi takes few chances on this date and makes no mistakes. His voicings are simplefew clusters but lots of sixths and triads; his voice-leading, on the other hand, is complex and masterful, making the most unexpected harmonic progressions seem inevitable. The other strength of the Italian pianist is the singing, aria-like quality of the tone he is able to extract from his percussive instrument.
Certainly Pieranunzi is conscious of the pedigree of his bassist, who is afforded as much if not more solo time than the pianist. The first two selections, "Mi sona inamorato di te and "These Foolish Things, have identical formats: on the first chorus, the piano plays the melody; on the second, Johnson's bass improvises to the bridge; and at the halfway point of the second chorus, the piano comes in and takes the tune out. One of the tunes ("Thought") is simply a reverie played through once by Pieranunzi, whereas "Heart of a Child and "Cabiria's Dream begin with singing melodies played pizzicato on the bass.
Still water runs deep, on this occasion revealing a singular luminescence from a subterranean source. While Pieranunzi's exacting and deliberate approach encourages the virtuoso Johnson to cut way back on his technique (no hint of twang, exaggerated decay, double stops, toccata passages or other signs of overplaying), the bassist's solos are often more animated yet no less definitive, thoughtful and melodically interesting than the pianist's. The two musicians complement one another beautifully in a true meeting of minds, with Joey Baron's drums providing whispered metrical reminders and delicately shaded, punctilious colorings.
Finally, I suspect Johnson has to be delighted not only about the substance of his playing but also the sound of his bass, which is captured with striking verisimilitude on this recording.