Marc Johnson: Shades of Jade

Alex Domschot: Venusian Commute
Dreambox Media

Though Marc Johnson's Shades of Jade lacks the forward-thinking thrust of his two Bass Desires albums, it's nonetheless an immensely satisfying set of classic acoustic jazz. This elegant outing by the one-time Bill Evans' bass player and regular John Abercrombie sideman is a rather self-effacing affair with Johnson often ceding the spotlight to pianist Eliane Elias, saxist Joe Lovano, and, to a lesser degree, John Scofield (how telling that Johnson's first extended solo appears in “Snow,” the album's sixth track); Joey Baron likewise enhances the material with cymbal flourishes while Alain Mallet adds organ to the greasy truck-stop blues of “Raise,” a rare up-tempo moment swing on this predominantly reflective collection.

Not surprisingly, given the amount of touring Elias, Johnson, and Baron have done together, the music often roots itself in the piano trio tradition with guitar and saxophone extending it into quartet and quintet formats. The Scofield-Lovano pairing on the languid, slightly bluesy “Ton Sur Ton” immediately revives the sound of the guitarist's much-admired quartet (as does its intricate head) while the mid-tempo swing of “Blue Nefertiti” simultaneously references both Scofield, Monk, and, of course, Wayne Shorter. Shades of Jade elsewhere calls to mind other artists—Coltrane circa Crescent (“Aparaceu”), Scott La Faro (“Shades of Jade”), Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio (“All Yours”)—which is not to suggest that the album is unoriginal so much as recognizing that it draws upon the deep tradition and shared language of jazz (a hint of “Moonlight Serenade” can even be glimpsed in “Aparaceu”).

Lyrical and consummate players all, the musicians seem incapable of playing a tasteless note, with Lovano's feathery flutter and burnished tone and Elias's trilling lines and nuanced cascades especially memorable (the ease with which she modulates rising and falling episodes in the ruminative “Snow” is particularly deft). The leader steps out on two dramatic pieces, “Since You Asked,” a mournful improvisation with Baron, and “Don't Ask Of Me” (an Armenian folk song otherwise known as “Intz Mi Khntrir”) where Johnson's bowing produces a cello-like cry, the song's meditative drone quality reminiscent of John Tavener. In truth, the hour-long set might just as easily have been issued under Elias's name, given her writing contributions to six of the ten cuts and her co-production credit (with ECM head Manfred Eicher), not to mention her pivotal musical presence throughout. But issues of accreditation do nothing to lessen the caliber of the superb album itself, regardless of the name shown on the front cover.

Though Johnson's own discography as a leader may be modest, he's appeared on a vast multitude of albums, one recent example Venusian Commute, a mix of classics and originals by NY guitarist Alex Domschot that's more wide-ranging than spacey. Like Johnson, Domschot initially adopts a deferential pose by showcasing Warren Samples' lyrical cello during the eleven-minute opener “Sad Princess,” but generally shifts the focus to himself thereafter. Domschot makes a rare acoustic showing on the opener too, with his silken sound caressed by the lush backdrop of a chamber string orchestra and the understated support of Johnson and drummer Vic Stevens. While Domschot has worked with established figures like Tony Bennett, Petula Clark, Henry Mancini, and Bernadette Peters plus has an equally extensive list of theatre credits, Venusian Commute is no exercise in jazz-lite. The trio literally burns through Jim Hall's “Two's Blues” (Andy Lalasis occupying the bass chair) and the Ornette tribute “Coal Man” (Domschot's sound at times simulating a guitar synth), and aggressively attacks Coltrane's “Some Other Blues” with Domschot dropping fleet angular runs and a bluesy, biting twang that can't help but recall Scofield (whose influence also presides over the “All Blues”-styled title piece). The album has its share of quieter, impressionistic moments too, with Domschot waxing reflectively throughout the delicate “Gary's Theme” and Johnson bowing on the meditative “Teachers”; the album even includes a samba-like treatment of The Beatles' “Fool on the Hill” (which sounds better than it does on paper). Like Shades of Jade, Venusian Commute is less intent on revolutionizing the form than with enhancing the jazz repertoire with quality sounds, a goal handsomely accomplished.

October 2005