Although solo bass recordings are hardly common, the list is longer than you might think: Players as prestigious as Ron Carter, Miroslav Vitous, and William Parker are among those who have given it a go. So has Dave Holland, whose 1977 ECM release Emerald Tears served as a particular inspiration for Marc Johnson’s new Overpass, recorded in Brazil in 2018 and co-produced by him and his wife, pianist Eliane Elias, who hails from that nation.
Each bassist who’s taken the solo plunge has approached it with a different methodology, but one guiding principle behind most of their creations is the need to coax the listener’s brain into filling in the considerable spaces left by the absence of others, to give the illusion of fullness. Most of us simply aren’t accustomed to hearing an unaccompanied upright acoustic bass for a long stretch of time. Johnson is well aware of that, and he takes care to maintain continually involving conversations with himself throughout these eight pieces. One of the five original compositions is titled “And Strike Each Tuneful String,” and it’s Johnson’s tunefulness that keeps Overpass from becoming a mere display of technique.
That aforementioned number is, in fact, a highlight. Rooted in an African field recording, the improvisation is, Johnson has said, an extension of ideas first explored in an earlier piece called “Prayer Beads.” Whispery but rich in tone, the track finds the bassist alternately plucking single-note runs and spilling out hectic, tango-like flurries for the first segment, before casting off the subtlety in favor of an increasingly dramatic explosion of notes. “Nardis,” the Miles Davis-penned standard, sees Johnson’s upper and lower registers tag-teaming thoughtfully, while “Whorled Whirled World,” like its playful title, is an entrancing, breathless bass race that provides the perfect sendoff to a most gratifying set of music.