Bassist Marc Johnson’s latest ECM release Shades of Jade is quite possibly the most gorgeous jazz album released in 2005. From his work with the quartet comprised of himself, drummer Peter Erskine, and guitarists Bill Frisell and John Scofield to his bass work on more than 100 albums by artists including Eliane Elias, Enrico Pieranunzi, Paul Motian, Gary Burton, and as a mainstay of the John Abercrombie trio, Johnson has consistently been one of the most tasteful bassists around. On Shades of Jade he brings together a true all-star jazz group and allows them to interact beautifully, anchored and supported by himself and drummer Joey Baron to create an album where the whole is truly more than the mere sum of the parts, no matter how impressive those parts may be.
On “Ton Sur Ton” Johnson and his supergroup come out with the cool jazz “Ton Sur Ton.” With its tight melodic line and restrained air, the piece is like an outtake from a great lost West Coast jazz session circa early ‘60s. The tightness of the ensemble should come as no surprise—Elias and Johnson have been working together for some time now, and Baron sat in on Elias’ 2002 release Kissed By Nature. Elias leads off with a concise piano solo, but tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano quickly steps to the fore, providing a gorgeous solo sound that hovers between Stan Getz cool and a Ben Webster full-bodied bouquet. With the exception of the closing track, all the compositions here belong to either Johnson or Elias, with several collaborations between the two. “Apareceu” is a gorgeous Elias composition that allows Lovano to take the tenor ballad spotlight, which his recent recordings with Hank Jones, George Mraz, and Paul Motian have shown he handles with aplomb. It’s great to see Elias’ piano playing and compositional skills taking center stage, putting her secondary career as a chanteuse in the background. She’s a major jazz player, and deserves to be heard in a pure jazz setting such as this one.
The Johnson/Elias penned title track is seven and a half minutes of pure meditation, as Johnson and Baron create a sonic backdrop over which Lovano floats while Elias provides soft patterns that drift across the landscape as clouds or recurrent thoughts. “In 30 Hours” is another impressionistic ballad that features Lovano heavily. Though the group’s output up to this point on the CD has been lyrical, tasteful, and perhaps a wee bit restrained, the attentive listener will in no way be bored. Nonetheless, the arrival of Marc Johnson’s clever “Blue Nefertiti,” a blues based on Wayne Shorter’s famous melodic line “Nefertiti” shows that this group can swing in a traditional sense, cementing a place for them as one of the best small jazz groups recorded in recent memory. John Scofield’s guitar work is featured less on this disc than Scofield’s tenor or Elias’ piano, but when he steps out, as on this tune, he provides a funky, blues-soaked guitar solo that truly rocks the house. Elias follows with an amazingly blues/gospel-tinged piano solo that will cause many who’ve heard her primarily as a Jobim interpreter to sit up and take notice.
“Snow,” another Elias tune that seems to have inspiration in Debussy and Keith Jarrett, touches on the pop piano-trio lyricism of Esbjorn Svensson, but which is tempered by the aforementioned classical and jazz influences as well as the hand of Herbie Hancock. The track also demonstrates well the near-telepathic communication between Johnson, Elias, and Baron. “Since You Ask” and “Don’t Ask of Me” are features for Johnson. The first is primarily a bass solo, gently supported by Baron’s cymbal washes, while the latter is an adaptation of an Armenian folk song that emphasizes Johnson’s interest in music of other cultures, which he has demonstrated on previous projects as well. Marc Johnson’s beautiful bowed playing is featured over a drone provided by organist Alain Mallet.
Shades of Jade provides a well-programmed bag of mixed grooves and moods, and is that rarest of jazz recordings in this day and age—one that seems to have an organic sensibility, that has been put together in just the right way, much as Kind of Blue or Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage. There is no question that this is one of the finest jazz recordings to be released this year.