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Marc Johnson - Overpass (ECM)

30 August 2021

Given the ECM label’s long tradition of solo bass recordings, it’s surprising that it’s taken this long for Marc Johnson to release one. After all, the former Bill Evans low-ender has made a string of records for the label, both as a leader (including with his band Bass Desires) and as a sideman for John Abercrombie, Charles Lloyd, Ralph Towner and others. Co-produced with his wife Eliane Elias, also a jazz musician and composer, Overpass finally lets Johnson hog the spotlight all to himself.

The bassist’s years with Evans taught him to be melodic as well as groove-driven, so it’s not surprising that he thrives in this format. While exceptionally skilled on his instrument, Johnson has always valued feel over virtuosity, and isn’t interested in using his platform to show off his skillz. His version of Eddie Harris’s much-covered “Freedom Jazz Dance,” which opens the record, sets the pace, with a riff-driven rhythm punctuated by frenzied ascending scales. “Life of Pai” moves in more minimalist waters, taking each note and lick seriously in and of itself, rarely trying to do two things at once. He does get busy on “And Strike Each Tuneful String” and “Whorled Whirled World,” and while the titles hint at the maelstrom to follow, it’s never a case of fancy fingering for its own sake. Not limiting himself to unaccompanied performances, Johnson overdubs himself soloing over multiple arco lines for the bluesy “Samurai Fly,” a reboot of sorts of his Bass Desires composition “Samurai Hee-Haw.”

Just as a reminder of where he came from, Johnson includes a solo take on “Nardis,” the Miles Davis composition that became his showcase during his Evans years. Even stripped of other instrumentation, the tune retains its hallucinatory power in Johnson’s masterful hands. With his emphasis on melody and touch as much as, if not more than, rhythm, Johnson makes Overpass the kind of compelling document that might well make believers out of skeptics.