The poetry implied in the title of Marc Johnson's latest disc is very much a part of who he is and the way he creates music. He's one of those bassists who makes his presence felt rather than known. Listen to how he coalesces with Bill Evans on Turn Out The Stars
(Warner Bros.) or both volumes of the still-not-on-CD gem Paris Concerts
. He follows deeply explored paths, without tripping for effect or falling all over the soloist to capture the spotlight. Even when he is exploring in center stage, he doesn't break mood for downbeat introspection or wild flings. Considering the diversity of music he's explored (with Woody Herman, Stan Getz, Pat Martino and Elaine Elias), Marc Johnson realizes a true jazz axiom: he strives and often achieves to capture experiences that are intended to be sensed, not described.
That's why it's difficult to attach words or comments to a beautiful disc like The Sound of Summer Running
. It's like what you think about the wind. Either it reaches you emotionally and spiritually deep within or you just never think about it. Johnson adds two significant string stylists in Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny and rounds it out with a drummer who can handle (or join) any style well, Joey Baron. A more simpatico quartet of musical explorers is difficult to imagine. The thrill of hearing Frisell with Metheny is especially rewarding (even more so since Metheny avoids his dreaded guitar synth altogether here). The Sound of Summer Running
is a follow-up of sorts to Baron's highest profile gig, Bass Desires. For that quartet, Johnson brought together emerging guitarists (and forces of nature), Bill Frisell and John Scofield, added drummer Peter Erskine and recorded two ECM albums, including its debut, Bass Desires
which remains the best, most memorable release of the eighties. The same welcome "sound of surprise" from that 1985 group is all over the place on this 1998 release.
Johnson wrote or co-wrote seven of the ten tunes, all so seemingly warm and familiar as if to be standards. Even the improvisation is sufficiently song-like as to melt into the melody. The high level of improvisation is, in fact, the element of this music's success. Johnson, Frisell, Metheny and Baron all have the considerable ability to think and react outside of jazz. And the musical forms they explore never bog down by preconceived notions of jazz nor suffer the spruced-up hyperbole of native instrumentation.
Consider it a sort of Music Americana. It takes in country pop ("Faith in You"), Western (Frisell's evocative "Ghost Town"), slow hillbilly blues ("With My Boots On," one of Johnson's few features), folk (the finger-snapping "Union Pacific") and rockabilly ("Dingy-Dongy Day"). What sets The Sound of Summer Running apart, oddly, are those moments that will be most familiar to jazz listeners. There is Johnson's mellifluous, hit-worthy Metheny tribute, "Summer Running," (featuring notable Frisell fret work). Then check out how Metheny dances over Frisell's Frisell-like "The Adventures of Max and Ben." Or dig how expertly Metheny crafts a Bill Evans-like synergy for the quartet on "For a Thousand Years," perhaps his grandest moment as a composer and a sumptuous showcase for Johnson's playing.
The Sound of Summer Running is the sound of creative music attaining a beauty and personality too rarely heard in contemporary jazzand another feather in the cap of this 45-year-old bassist's musical history. During the last minute or so of the disc's final track, there are some brief musical sketches (including "House of the Rising Sun") included that suggest this quartet has so much more to say. Here's hoping they have the opportunity.
Mention should be also made of this disc's producer, Lee Townsend, who has been at the helm of all of 1998's best, most creative jazz: from Joey Baron, Bill Frisell and Marc Johnson to John Scofield's excellent collaboration with Medeski, Martin and Wood, A Go Go (also on Verve).