Some would argue that it's impossible to call a recording classic until sufficient time has passed to determine its true staying power. Still, one can say that a recording has the makings of a classicespecially in its ability to be simultaneously of its time and timeless. Bassist Marc Johnson has only released a handful of albums under his own name since emerging in the late 1970s. And while they've all been very, very good, often in distinctly different waysand experiences you can go back to time and time again, year after yearnone could really be considered classic.
Until now. Returning to the ECM label as a leader for the first time since 1987's Second Sight, Johnson has turned Shades of Jade into the kind of artistic achievement that most musicians can only hope to accomplish. He's recruited a veritable supergroup, consisting of saxophonist Joe Lovano, guitarist John Scofield, pianist Eliane Elias, and drummer Joey Baron, plus organist Alain Mallet, who appears on two tracks. It's not about the playing, yet it's all about the playing. The performances on Shades of Jade could only come from a group of players so comfortable and assured that they can dispense with ego and surrender completely to the demands of the music.
The materialall but one piece written by Johnson and/or Eliasevokes a breadth of emotion, but in a subtle way that relies on players with nothing to prove yet plenty to say. Only after a full 25 minutes does the album display any sign of energy. Yet on the relaxed "Ton Sur Ton, the gentle "Aparaceu, the dark-hued title track, and the melancholy "In 30 Hours, there's still a deep emotional connection. The swinging "Blue Nefertiti cleverly taking the signature line from Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti and subsuming it into a sixteen-bar bluespresents a strong contrast while remaining wholly in context.
Given such strong musical personalities, what's most remarkable about Shades of Jade is how everyone retains their unmistakable identity yet openly explores new directions. Both Lovano and Scofield turn in the most purely textural playing of their careers. Scofield's long swells on the title track are out of character, yet they could come from nobody else. Lovano's feathery solo on "Ton Sur Ton is distant from his normally robust tone and strong lines, sounding at times like Charles Lloyd, but with a more purposeful sense of construction. Elias' lyricism has never been so profound, Baron's ability to speak with gentlest of touches so essential. Johnson, always able to find the nexus between elegance and power, has never sounded better.
What makes Shades of Jade a contender for "classic status is its remarkable ability to bring together multitudinous musical experiences without sounding explicitly like any one of them. At times inward-looking, at others more extroverted, intrepid without losing its accessibility, Shades of Jade timelessly blends the musicians' lifetimes of stylistic breadth into an experience that's completely familiar, yet totally fresh and innovative in the most understated way imaginable.
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