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Marc Johnsons Homage to Bill Evans & Scott La Faro

11/04/08 11:30

Marc Johnsons Homage to Bill Evans & Scott La Faro


By Anil Prasad | March, 2008 Marc Johnson Salutes Bill Evans & Scott LaFaro On 'Something For You'

Few tribute albums are as heartfelt and imaginative as Something for You , pianist and vocalist Eliane Eliass homage to jazz titan Bill Evans. Created in collaboration with upright bassist Marc Johnson, Evanss sideman from 1978 to his 1980 death, and Eliass husband, the album explores well-known Evans compositions and standards infused with fresh arrangements and the occasional gorgeous Elias vocal. Johnson is firmly established as one of the worlds leading upright bass talents, an acclaimed bandleader and composer as well as sideman. His many adventurous solo albumsincluding 2005s Shades of Jade, 1999s The Sound of Summer Running, and 1985s Bass Desires are infused with world music, rock, and Americana influences. But his tenure with Evans still stands out in bold on his musical resum, having launched him into the publics consciousness at age 24. Says Elias, Bill himself said his last trio with Marc and drummer Joe LaBarbera felt closely connected to his legendary trio with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drumsmore so than any of the others. Marc played such an important role in the tribute project because of his direct connection to Bill; he helped by unearthing 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. Marc thinks compositionally when he plays. He has a way of opening things up harmonically for the other players so you dont 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. Eliane wanted to come out with a piano-based project. Together, we started thinking about the Bill Evans tribute idea; Bill was such a major influence on both of us. I rummaged around for material in mycloset and came across a bunch of Bills old practice cassettes that he gave to me right before he passed away, including a few new compositions that were mostly complete. I was aware of one piece in particular that he would play during soundchecks. So, Eliane transcribed it, put a lyric on it, and it became the opener track, Here Is Something for You. You can hear Bills original practice version, toowe included it at the end of the record. Eliane also liked another tune on the cassette that we called Evanesque; its a lovely piece that starts out in 4/4 and goes into 3/4. A lot of the tunes were part of the repertoire you played with Evans. What was it like to revisit that material? It was an emotional experience. Im grateful we were able to make this recording; I wasnt fraught with the psychological pressure I felt when I played with Bill, which was one of my first professional gigs, so it was great to revisit the material with total emotional freedom. But beyond that, I didnt 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 Bills work through the prism of her own artistry, and the result is sublime. How did Scott LaFaro influence your bass approach? Scottys sound was unique and naturalso real and fluid-sounding. He never used a pickup, and you never heard any clicks or metal string noise, because he used gut strings. He was also very melodic and inventive and had a real horn-like quality when he soloed. Next was his amazing fluidity and velocity 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 wasnt 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 and obfuscated the one. His approach was truly creative and beautiful. What was it about your playing that made Evans inclined to use you? I think it related to the fact that I had digested a lot of the bassists who came through Bills trio prior to me. They all engaged in a kind of dancing accompaniment that goes on between the piano and drums. 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. With Bill, if the drummer was playing 4/4, there was no reason why the bassist had to be doing so, too. The bassist could play something different while also feeling the time and the form, and relating to the structure of the piece. So, there was 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. At the same time, he was very aware of my youth and inexperience, but he also sensed my potential. 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 has your playing evolved since those days? Ive pursued a constant distillation of bringing certain values to performance, like good intonation and time feel, and getting my melodic solos and content to be clear and concise. In the beginning, I was playing a lot of superfluous notes. As Ive progressed, my self-editing process has become better. Ive also become a lot more effective at controlling the pulse and its subdivisions. My knowledge of harmony has evolved, and I now play through harmony more gracefully. Youve said one of the biggest challenges youve 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. Lets use Bill Evanss arrangement of Nardis as an example. In order to get free in the time in that tune, it helps to really feel the form. Its 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. Thats the large structure. Inside the 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 16ths, to triplets
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Marc Johnsons Homage to Bill Evans & Scott La Faro

11/04/08 11:30

Practicing keeping a pulse off the open string, I learned to move melodic ideas more freely, going from eighth-notes to 16ths, to triplets to quarter-notes, and from that to dotted quarter-notes, back to 16th-notes, 16th-note triplets, etc. I also got a feel for how these permutations can reside within groups of one, two, four, and eight measures, and be able to go in and out of all of them easily and fluidlysometimes 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, its 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 triplets rhythm in a sequence of notes, and learning to articulate rhythm with the left hand as well as the right. In general, I like the time to feel like bouncing a basketball off the floor. I like feeling the time rebounding; its the feel of the rebound that gives lift and allows the music to dance inside the time. Its the and beats and the up beatsthe second or third part of the tripletthat generate that feeling of buoyancy. I was consciously directing my attention to these things when I joined Bills 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 Abercrombies trio with drummer Peter Erskine in 1983. Playing with Peter and John was very liberating. Peters time was so solid, and Johns 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. Ill do whatever I have to in order to make that happen. Im never thinking, How am I going to put myself forward in this music? Rather, Im looking at an overall picture for the record and how the material and the players balance out to create a cohesive whole. Its not an ego-less process, but its not about that to begin with. My goal is to present music that groovesmusic that people will want to listen to again and again.

Scottys Bass
Marc Johnson had the unique opportunity to use Scott LaFaros Abraham Prescott bassthe same one he had used with Evanson Something for You. The bass belongs to Barrie Kolstein, a wonderful luthier in New York, Marc explains. I was in his shop and mentioned that I was going to be recording a tribute to Bill Evans. Without missing a beat, he said, Would you like to use Scottys bass? I was stunned for a minute, and then I became really excited about the prospect. As it turned out, the bass was available for only two days, as Kolstein was going out of town and didnt want the instrument handled by anyone but Johnson. Marc used the bass on My Foolish Heart, as well as Re: Person I Knew; the latter appears only on the Japanese edition of the album. Its such a beautiful bass, says Marc. 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, and when you hit a note, it rings forever. Its also very even through each register. The scale length was slightly different from what Johnson was used to, however, so he used his own bass for most of the album. Scotty was such an iconic figure in the jazz bass world, so the instrument is a talisman of sorts, Marc continues. Just having it in the room with me was very special. Scottys playing pointed me in a direction early on, and it helped me realize a direction for my life. I felt like I owe him so much for where I am today. Having all of these feelings 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 Scottys death. It conjured up all sorts 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.

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Marcs Soloing Concept & His Xavier Jacquet Bass
Describe your regular bass. Its 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. Were only talking about millimeters here, but its enough to throw off your location on the fingerboard. I also had the top regraduated by Paulo Gomes, a luthier in Sao Paulo. That modification opened up the instrument and gave it more of a singing quality. Now, the bass has the best of both worlds in that its 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 us 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, 30 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 1/2" 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 should young players keep in mind when trying to compose a memorable solo? 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, your ideas will tend to create gravity of their own. Once you explore an initial idea based on small segments, its easier to build a solo that sounds like a few words and then evolves into a sentence, and if youre 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 dont know much harmony, you can still create an interesting solo by varying what you do know rhythmically.

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY
Solo albums Shades of Jade, ECM
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Marc Johnsons Homage to Bill Evans & Scott La Faro

11/04/08 11:30

Shades of Jade, ECM If Trees Could Fly (with Eric Longsworth), Intuition The Sound of Summer Running, Verve Magic Labyrinth , Winter & Winter Right Brain Patrol, Polygram Two by Four , Polygram Second Sight , ECM Bass Desires , ECM With Bill Evans Turn Out the Stars: Final Village Vanguard Recordings, Warner The Paris Concert, Editions One and Two, Blue Note We Will Meet Again , Warner Affinity, Warner With Eliane Elias Something for You: Eliane Elias Sings & Plays Bill Evans , Blue Note Everything I Love, Blue Note With John Abercrombie The Third Quartet, ECM John Abercrombie, Marc Johnson & Peter Erskine, ECM

CURRENTLY SPINNING
Bill Evans, The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings [Riverside, 1961] I listened to a lot of Bill Evans recordings in preparation for Elianes tribute CD, but I keep coming back to these performances. They are timeless and speak directly to the heart. Herbie Hancock, Inventions & Dimensions [Blue Note, 1963] The playing is loose and open, yet compositionally focused. I especially like A Jump Ahead, in which bassist Paul Chambers is establishing the tonal centers for each upcoming event.

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