CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

The Stellar Sideman Career of Marc Johnson

A look at the bassist's time playing with Bill Frisell, Eliane Elias, and others

Marc Johnson
Marc Johnson (photo: Jos Knaepen)

When Marc Johnson left North Texas State University in 1977, it was through a revolving door into the Woody Herman Orchestra. Two years prior, the Herd had picked up its entire rhythm section from that school: pianist Lyle Mays, drummer Steve Houghton, and bassist Kerby Stewart. So when the bass chair opened up again, it was only natural that Mays would suggest Johnson, his classmate and collaborator, for the gig.

Although his time in a big band was invaluable, Johnson had his heart set on playing in small group settings. What he didn’t expect was that when the opportunity to join a piano trio arose 10 months later, it would be with the very group that had caused him to fall in love with the format: the Bill Evans Trio.

“It was my dream gig,” Johnson recalls. “Even if I had never played with Bill Evans, my intention, my hope, and my desire were to play in piano trios. I was still pretty green, but Bill heard something in my playing that he felt had potential and was willing to give me a shot. When that happened it solidified not only my reputation but my self-confidence. At the time it meant everything to me.”

The experience would prove to be rich but short-lived. Evans died two years later, and it would be some years before Johnson was able to play in a piano trio again. “When Bill died I just felt the whole bottom had dropped out,” he says. “In the back of my mind I knew that if I had the opportunity to do something of my own I didn’t want it to be a piano trio because I depended on Bill’s level of musical experience. I don’t mean to demean anybody else I was working with, but when he passed it was such a huge loss.”

In 1981 Johnson joined fellow Evans alum Paul Motian for a series of rehearsals, but with few touring prospects on the horizon he instead spent the better part of two years touring with Stan Getz. It wasn’t until he joined with guitarist John Abercrombie, in an inventive trio that also included drummer Peter Erskine, that he was able to find a new outlet for the ideas that had been sparked by his tenure with Evans and Joe LaBarbera.

“The Abercrombie Trio was a beautiful continuation of the work that I’d done with Bill Evans and the direction I was going,” he explains. “The language was very similar, so I was able to develop a way to play time with no changes, a sense of creating the music on the spot with very loose or limited structures. It was a conception of freedom within structure, and as I got better I became more liberated and could take more risks.”

Erskine and Johnson spent countless hours on the road workshopping and discussing ideas to open up the time feel of the trio, according to the drummer. “Marc seemed to intuitively understand the yin and yang of bass and drums dynamically, texturally, and rhythmically,” Erskine says. “One of us would pull at the fabric of the time while the other wouldn’t, and it became much more subtle and interesting. We didn’t turn on a dime but went into a free fall. It was the first time that I felt liberated by a bass player. Marc really took the shackles off of me musically and mentally.”

“I didn’t really understand what a backbeat felt like until I played with Peter Erskine,” Johnson says, returning the compliments. “Peter’s time is so solid and his beat is so wide that it was really liberating. Even if I got lost or I stretched something further than I should or could, the signposts and trust were there with John and Peter so that we could always get back on the form if we disintegrated for a second.”

Johnson’s leader efforts would focus on the guitar for the next two decades. Alongside the long-running Abercrombie Trio he founded his own quartet, Bass Desires, which reteamed him with Erskine alongside the unparalleled six-string tandem of John Scofield and Bill Frisell. With two such distinctive voices, the lineup opened seemingly infinite landscapes to explore, from the free-floating to the funky. Frisell’s airy Americana tinges and Sco’s razor-sharp rock inflections engaged in an urgent tug-of-war with the rhythm section’s elastic sense of time.

“John and Bill were such different players and complemented each other so well,” Johnson remembers. “We could play different grooves and go in different directions musically than a traditional jazz group might.”

“It felt like a new thing as much because of the instrumentation as the way everybody played,” Scofield says. “Frisell’s such an innovative guitar player, Marc and Peter made an incredible rhythm section, and Marc was introducing very interesting music.”

In the early ’90s, Johnson delved into an eclectic world-music exploration with Armenian-Turkish percussionist Arto Tunçboyacıyan in the trio Right Brain Patrol, first with Ben Monder and later Wolfgang Muthspiel on guitar. Later in the decade he reimagined the Bass Desires formula on The Sound of Summer Running, this time with drummer Joey Baron, and the returning Frisell paired with Pat Metheny.

Johnson’s leader efforts remained sporadic, however, as he concentrated on a series of important sideman collaborations. Significantly, he returned to the piano trio beginning in 1984 with Italian keyboardist Enrico Pieranunzi. “We shared affinities and history,” Johnson says of Pieranunzi, with whom he played alongside either Joey Baron or Paul Motian. “Enrico was a student of Bill Evans’ playing, but he also incorporated a bit of Chick and McCoy. The way he approaches harmony is open and a little ambiguous, which afforded me an opportunity to play different pathways through the harmony that were opened up.”

He recorded with a wide range of leaders, often for the ECM label: John Taylor, Ralph Towner, Paul Bley, Gary Burton, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano, Charles Lloyd. But the most significant meeting happened once again through the auspices of Peter Erskine. For his 1988 album Motion Poet the drummer enlisted Johnson and a number of former bandmates from Steps Ahead, including the Brazilian-born pianist Eliane Elias. A few years later Elias called the bassist to join her own band, sparking a musical and personal partnership that has lasted now for three decades.

“My musical choices since then have been dictated by prioritizing my work with Eliane,” says Johnson, who married the pianist in 1999. “It’s wonderful that we can be together and play music together. We really admire each other’s playing and have a deep understanding and respect for each other’s musicality. For me, it’s been the best of both worlds.”

The influence of Bill Evans on Elias’ own style has been a point of commonality between her and Johnson throughout their work together. They’ve paid homage to the bassist’s mentor twice: on Elias’ Something for You (2008), which included music from rehearsal tapes that Evans had gifted to Johnson; and Johnson’s Shades of Jade (2005), a tribute to his predecessor in the Evans trio, Scott LaFaro.

Elias’ Brazilian roots have also opened up a new array of influences for Johnson, as has the previously unexplored territory of accompanying a vocalist. “As I’ve gotten more deeply into Brazilian music and especially accompanying Eliane as a singer, I’ve noticed that I try to do more with less. My whole concept for playing now, even in jazz, is trying to find the fewest amount of notes that are the right notes, played in the right place with the right feel, to make the most music for the moment.”

The confluence of deep musical connection and personal happiness has been ideal for Johnson, who is at least as content making meaningful music as a sideman as he is in the limelight. Nevertheless, the lull in his leader efforts may end soon, with a long-cherished solo album in the early stages. At the same time he remains dedicated to his work with Elias, whose upcoming release marks a return to a more intimate, vocal-centered sound after a few larger-scale projects.

“I’ve never been that ambitious as a leader,” Johnson admits. “Early on I think was important for the marketplace, and also sometimes from a creative standpoint. But I’ve been really blessed to always play in groups that I’ve enjoyed playing with, being asked to play by musicians who I really admired.”

Recommended Listening:

  • Bill Evans The Paris Concert: Edition Two (Elektra/Musician, 1984; rec. 1979)
  • Marc Johnson Bass Desires (ECM, 1986)
  • John Abercrombie / Marc Johnson / Peter Erskine Self-titled (ECM, 1989)
  • Enrico Pieranunzi Untold Story (IDA, 1994)
  • Marc Johnson Right Brain Patrol (JMT, 1995)
  • Eliane Elias Something for You (Blue Note, 2008)

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.