May 24, 2024

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Interview with Marc Johnson: Underpinning genius: Photos, Full concert video with Bill Evans

Few tribute albums are as heartfelt and imaginative as Something For You, pianist and vocalist Eliane Elias’ personal appreciation of jazz titan Bill Evans.

Created in collaboration with upright bass virtuoso Marc Johnson, Evans’ bassist from 1978 to his passing in 1980, the album offers a varied and unique look at the pianist’s oeuvre. Drummer Joey Baron rounds out the album’s trio which explores well-known Evans compositions and his favorite standards infused with fresh arrangements and the occasional gorgeous Elias vocal. It also features previously unknown, unrecorded material from the legendary musician that’s sure to create a major buzz amongst jazz aficionados.

Johnson is firmly established as one of the world’s leading upright bass talents, an acclaimed bandleader and composer, as well as a sideman to jazz intelligentsia. His many solo albums, including 2005’s Shades of Jade,1999’s The Sound of Summer Running, and 1985’s Bass Desires, are adventurous and acclaimed jazz efforts infused with world music, rock, and Americana influences. His work on albums by artists as diverse as saxophonist Stan Getz, guitarist John Abercrombie, pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, and vibist Gary Burton is equally renowned. But his tenure with Evans still stands out in bold on his musical resume as a life-changing experience that served as his springboard into the public’s consciousness at age 24.

“Bill himself said he felt his last trio with Marc and drummer Joe LaBarbera was more closely connected to his first, legendary trio with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, than any of the others,” says Elias. “That says a lot about how Bill felt about Marc. He played such an important role in the tribute project because of his direct connection to Bill. He helped by unearthing the previously unheard pieces, as well as informing everyone about how Bill originally approached the material. Marc was also integral because of his amazing versatility and facility with his instrument, as well as his gorgeous tone and intonation.”

Elias also points to Johnson’s intuitive soloing and accompanist talents as other hallmarks that distinguish him on the Evans tribute, as well as the many other projects they’ve engaged in together.

“Marc’s soloing is very melodic and lyrical in that he thinks compositionally when he plays,” explains Elias. “He also really knows how to interact with other musicians and give them the freedom to go wherever they want within the tune. He has a way of opening things up harmonically for the other players so you don’t feel locked in. He gives you options because of his great feel and where he places his notes, which is one of the key reasons I think Bill loved his playing so much.”

Describe the impetus behind the new Bill Evans tribute.

After recording several albums for the Sony BMG label that were more vocal-based, Eliane decided she wanted to come out with a more piano-based project. Together, we started thinking about the Bill Evans tribute idea, which came from a very sincere place given that Bill was such a major influence on both of us. It was originally conceived as a live project. Around the same time, Eliane was talking to Blue Note about returning to that label where she had previously recorded 16 albums. Everyone agreed the Bill Evans project would be a great first album to rekindle her relationship with the label.

Also, while thinking about the project, I rummaged around for material in my closet and came across a bunch of Bill’s old practice cassettes that he gave to me right before he passed away. It turned out there were a few new compositions that were mostly complete. I was aware of one piece in particular that was a work in progress because he was playing it during soundchecks. I always wondered what happened to that piece and asked Bill’s son Evan if he knew of it and had a manuscript and he didn’t. So, Eliane transcribed it, put a lyric on it and it became the track “Here Is Something For You” which resides at the top of the album. You can hear Bill’s original practice version too because we included it at the end of the record. Eliane also liked another tune on the cassette that we called “Evanesque.” It’s a really lovely piece that starts out in 4/4 and goes into 3/4 and includes a beautiful blowing section that she added to it.

A lot of the music featured on the album was part of the core repertoire you played with Evans. What was it like to revisit that material?

It was an emotional experience. I’m really grateful we were able to make this recording. I wish I had played then with the confidence and ease that I play now. I wasn’t fraught with the psychological pressure I felt when I played with Bill, which was one of the first professional gigs I ever had. In a way, I was over my head when I started with Bill, so it was great to revisit the material free of that baggage and with total emotional freedom. But beyond that, I didn’t previously think there was another pianist with the depth of understanding to enable a connection to this music with such a strong resonance. Eliane did an amazing job with this. She reveals the essence of Bill’s work through the prism of her own artistry and the result is sublime.

You used Scott LaFaro’s Abraham Prescott bass—the same one he used with Evans—on a couple of tracks. How did that opportunity come about?

The bass belongs to Barrie Kolstein, a wonderful luthier in New York. I was in his shop and mentioned to him that in a month I was going to be in the studio recording a tribute to Bill Evans. Without missing a beat, he said “Would you like to use Scotty’s bass for the recording?” I was stunned for a minute and then became really excited about the prospect. So, we made all the arrangements, but as it turned out, the bass was only available for two days as Barrie was going on holiday and didn’t want the instrument handled by anyone but me. So, there was a short window of opportunity for me to use the instrument and get it back to him safely so he could place it back in the vault he keeps it in. I used the bass on “My Foolish Heart,” as well as “Re: Person I Knew.” The latter only appears on the Japanese edition of the album as a bonus track.

Describe the instrument for me.

It’s such a beautiful bass. It was made in 1825 in Concord, New Hampshire. The top is made from a three-piece plate of slab-cut fir, and the back is constructed from a two-piece plate of moderately flamed Maple with an ebony inlay at the center joint. The sides are made of matching maple. It has rolled corners on the bottom and very sloped shoulders on the top, which makes it very easy to get in and out of thumb position. I had the action set a little higher than Scotty would have, but it was eminently playable in every way. It has a fat, warm, yet very clear sound. When you hit a note, it really rings forever, with an amazing sustain. It’s also very even through each register of the instrument. However, because the scale length is slightly different from my own instrument, and the fact that I knew I had to do a professional job on the album, meant I didn’t want to play it on every tune. I’m much more comfortable on my own bass for soloing, so I used it for the majority of the album.

How did just knowing you were playing LaFaro’s bass affect how you played?

Because Scotty was such an iconic figure in the jazz bass world, the instrument is a talisman of sorts. Just having it in the room with me was very special. I revere the music Scotty made with Bill so much. Those players have such a legendary stature in my mind. And because Scotty died in 1961, I was never going to meet him, know him, or shake his hand. I was never going to see him live either, so that created an even more idealized place in my heart. In a way, it’s a beautiful place because it’s so personal and embedded in my imagination. Scotty’s playing pointed me in a direction early on and it helped me realize a direction for my life. So, I felt like I owe this person so much for where I am today. Having all of these things mixed up in the moment I had the instrument in my hands playing a tune like “My Foolish Heart” was an extremely deep experience. It was made even more intense by the fact that this was the first recording of the instrument since Scotty’s passing. It was a ball of emotions that conjured up all sorts of feelings of nostalgia and a kind of longing and reaching for something intangible.  It transported me to a time in my life when I first experienced these feelings in response to the music. It was an amazing experience.

How did LaFaro influence your bass approach?

Scotty’s sound was so unique and natural. It was so real and fluid-sounding. He never used a pick-up, and you never heard any clicks or metal string noise because he used gut strings. He was also a very melodic and inventive player that had a real horn-like quality when he soloed. Those are the first things I grabbed onto. Next was the  amazing fluidity and velocity he had on the instrument. After that, I went deeper into what he did to understand his choice and placement of notes as an accompanist. The things he did in between piano phrases and across the time were phenomenal and made a deep impression on me. It was a conceptual thing. He served as a melodic countervoice to everything else that was happening. He wasn’t walking all the time in 4/4, yet he had a real groove with Bill and Paul Motian. When they played ballads, the groove would go from first gear to second gear and back to first gear with an implication of double-time and other meters. He played with ideas that went over the bar line that obfuscated the one—the downbeat of the bar.  His approach was truly creative and beautiful.

Describe your regular bass of choice that you used on the rest of the album.

It’s a Xavier Jacquet made in France in 1840. The top is spruce and the sides and back are Maple. I had the neck set out from the body a little to make it easier to play in the upper register. I did that because the bass has wider shoulders than my previous instrument, so getting in and out of thumb position was a little more awkward. We’re only talking about millimeters here, but it’s enough to throw off your location on the fingerboard. I also had the top regraduated by Paulo Gomes, a luthier in Sao Paulo, Brazil. That modification opened the instrument up and gave it more of a singing quality. The bridge and sound post setup are by Bruno Destrez, a French luthier in New York. Now, the bass has the best of both worlds in that it’s somewhere in between a wonderful French bass and a great Italian bass. It has a clear and ballsy sound in the low end which my earlier Italian bass was missing, yet it also has a nice, lyrical sound in the upper register.

Tell me about the setup you used to record your contributions for the album.

We went for the most natural sound possible. We used a Neumann M 149 mic on the G-string side of the bass, about 30 and 3/4″ from the floor to capsule, and about a foot away from the instrument. It was aimed at a point between the bridge and the F hole. In addition, we used a Schoeps CMC5 mic between the bridge and the F hole on the other side of the bass. It was positioned 41 and 1/4” from floor to capsule, and again, about a foot away. This enabled us to get some of the warmth and the bottom of the sound from the Neumann and the top part of the sound for definition from the Schoeps.

What was it about your approach that made Evans inclined to use you?

I think it related to the fact that I had digested a lot of the bassists that came through Bill’s trio prior to me, so I was already intimately familiar with what people like Scotty, Gary Peacock, and Eddie Gomez did. They all engage in a kind of dancing accompaniment that goes on between the piano and drums. Bill’s bassists also had a virtuosic approach to their instrument. They could play very quickly and infuse the music with flurries of notes, as well as play melodically. His bassists could also be viewed as rhythmic instigators and conversationalists. The bass had to play the root function when necessary, but there was also melodic interjection and counterpoint that was really apparent.

With Bill, if the drummer was playing 4/4, there was no reason why the bassist has to be doing so too. The bassist can play something different while also feeling the time and the form, and relating to the structure of the piece. So, there’s a looser quality that finds bassists playing through the forms instead of obviously outlining the form. I already had this conception in my playing during the audition and I think Bill heard that clearly. At the same time, Bill was very aware of my youth, inexperience, and a slight lack of vocabulary because I was still developing, but he also sensed my potential for the music. Having said that, after we made Affinity, our first record together in 1978, Bill said he was really happy with my work and that I was playing beyond my years.

How have you evolved as a bassist since your days with Evans?

After working with Bill, I was still developing as an instrumentalist. Since that time, I’ve pursued a constant distillation of the same concept of bringing certain values to performance like good intonation and time feel, and getting my melodic solos and content to be clear and concise. I try to bring those elements into every musical situation I encounter. My goal is to play what needs to be played and be as good an accompanist and teammate as possible so that together as a band, we can bring the music to life and play it with the clearest intention possible. I’ve been doing that better and better. In the beginning, I was applying a lot of superfluous notes to my playing. As I’ve progressed, my self-editing process has become better. I’ve also become a lot more effective at controlling the pulse and subdivisions of the pulse. Also, my knowledge of harmony has evolved and I now play through harmony more gracefully.

You’re known for very artful bass solos. What should younger players keep in mind when trying to compose a memorable solo?

I think they should start with small fragments, like a two- or three-note idea and just try to take that idea and move it around the harmony. If you can begin to do that, then your ideas will tend to create gravity of their own. Once you explore an initial idea based on small segments, it’s easier to build a solo that sounds like a few words and then evolves into a sentence, and if you’re really lucky, it becomes a paragraph. The keys to going further are understanding harmony, how chords are built, and what the chord and scale tones are. Once you have those components together, they serve as the building blocks for expression. But if you don’t know much harmony, you can still create an interesting solo by varying what you do know rhythmically.

You’ve said one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced is learning how to play free in the time. How did you overcome that?

By getting grounded in the pulse, internalizing duple against triple meter, and getting an internal feel or clock for larger durations of time. Let’s use Bill Evans’ arrangement of “Nardis” as an example. In order to get free in the time in that tune, it’s helpful to really feel the form. It’s a 32-bar AABA structure of four groups of eight measures where for the purpose of playing an unaccompanied bass solo, the A sections can be played in E minor over a pedal-point using the open E string and the B section in A minor over a pedal-point using the open A string. That’s the large structure. Inside the measure bars live the permutations of the beat and choice notes to outline the harmony.  Practicing keeping a pulse off the open string, I learned to move melodic ideas more freely going from eighth notes to sixteenths, to triplets to quarter notes and from that to dotted quarter notes, back to sixteenth notes, sixteenth note triplets, etcetera. I also got a feel for how these permutations can reside within measure groups of one measure, two measures, four and eight, and be able to go in and out of all of them easily and fluidly, sometimes resting or giving space, yet still really feeling the pulse and always being mindful of the larger 32-bar form.

Another thing was feeling the triplet inside the quarter note. If you can feel the triplet, that’s going to help solidify your feel and time. Yet another epiphany was learning to articulate different parts of the triplet, using accents to vary the rhythm of the triplet in a sequence of notes and learning to articulate rhythm with the left hand, as well as the right hand. In general, I like the time feel to be similar to bouncing a basketball off the floor. I like feeling the time rebounding. It’s the feel of the rebound that gives lift and allows the music to dance inside the time. It’s the “up” beats and the “and” beats—the second or third part of the triplet—that generates that feeling of buoyancy. I  was consciously directing my attention to these things when I joined Bill’s trio in 1978. Sometimes the work was with the bass in the practice room, but sometimes it was internal during silent practice. For instance, when going for a walk, I would have my feet keeping pulse and the music of my mind making counterpoint. Things really started to gel when I joined John Abercrombie’s trio with Peter Erskine in 1983. Playing with Peter and John was very liberating. Peter’s time was so solid and John’s playing was so labyrinthine that it served as a great playground to develop and solidify these concepts.

Your recent solo albums are very compositionally-focused and balanced. Do you ever find yourself fighting the temptation to include full-frontal bass playing in your music?

No, because my general philosophy is to make recordings that are complete and compelling to listen to. I’ll do whatever I have to in order to make that happen. I’m never thinking “How am I going to put myself forward in this music?” Rather, I’m looking at an overall picture for the record and how the material and the players balance out to create a cohesive whole. It’s not an ego-less process, but it’s not about that to begin with. My goal is to present music that grooves which people will want to listen to again and again.

Interview by Anil Prasad

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