Marc Johnson long ago cemented his abilities as a bassist since his involvement in Bill Evans' final trio. His career as a leader in his own right, though, has been a lttle more questionable. Released periodically over the span of a quarter century, his albums have run the gamut in quality from his excellent early ECM dates featuring Bill Frisell and John Scofield to the somewhat lackluster feel of Sound of Summer Running
(Verve, 1998). Nonetheless, all this changes with Shades of Jade
. Here, Johnson and his longtime collaborators have cultivated a sound that listeners will find themselves coming back to over the years for well more than a simple cursory listen.
Johnson's concept hasn't necessarily changed over the years. He has tread similar ground on his previous albums in various forms, but what has changed are the results he elicits from everyoneincluding here the stunning Eliane Elias. Recorded and presented in absolute pristine color, the two account for nine of the ten compositions and share a rapport based on their consistent involvement in each other's projects that the rest of the musicians are able to balance their own performances upon. Completing the equation are Joey Baron (drums), Alain Mallet (organ on a few songs, including the dirge-like closer), Scofield (guitar), and Joe Lovano (tenor saxophone).
This group cultivates a warm sound that carries the album through its many moods, but the pervasive quiet beauty is the real sound stage for the musicians. Lovano's tenor in particular sounds even more subdued and relaxed than on his recent songbook albums with Hank Jones, and although Scofield or Lovano's name may inspire a majority of listeners' attention when they first listen to Shades of Jade
, Elias will certainly usurp it.
Elias performs with an understated beauty that belies expectations. While her output as a leader commonly focuses on themes that have tended to pigeonhole her as an interpreter of Brazilian jazz crossovers, here her talents are laid bare. An incomparable asset to this recording, she guides the momentum and feel of the music throughout, just as she does on her own "Aparecu, where she builds and embellishes the melody behind Lovano, accenting his spaces and keeping pace with every turn of phrase. With a sound reminiscent of Evans, she hardly needs to prove her talents, but it is also impossible not to notice them.
Marked by the measured nuances in every phrase, these pieces are songs more than anything else, and to call them tunes would seem almost insulting. And while the title of Shades of Jade
is a reference to Evans' first great trio bassist, Scott LaFaro, the results are more in line with Evans' trio as a whole, where everyone contributes individual characteristics to create a sound that's greater than the sum of its parts. Finally Johnson has created an album with a timeless feel, one that marks a highpoint in the ECM catalog, and something listeners will undoubtedly come back to explore time and again.