Somewhere somebody said something about the bass being important. Like it keeps the rhythm, right? But in Marc Johnson’s new ECM release, Overpass, that’s all there is. Bass. Though I’ve come across Pat Metheny’s solo guitar album, One Quiet Night, Sonny Rollins’ solo sax stuff, and the countless solo albums by Bill Evans (not to mention the plethora by other pianists), I don’t think a solo bass work has reached my ears—probably because I find said instrument a bore and an annoyance. I mean, every time the bass improvisation/solo comes in, it’s too soft! I have to turn up the volume and then turn it back down again when the band rejoins. Such struggles leave me with little love for the king of string instruments. However—volume fluctuations aside—Overpass with its overload of bass does leave me with a lovely tingle or two.
Being single is a lonely business. But there is power in that isolation, power of thought and reflection. Johnson plays notes with consideration. Each vibration lasts as long or as short as it should; he loves to pause and allow a silence to pervade a piece. Tracks like “Life of Pai” linger. They are never assuming yet are hard to ignore. The tenderness of touch is the true gift at Johnson’s disposal. Each string pluck resonates first in the finger, then the string, then outward into the space. A space happy to be filled with such affection and such solitude.
So, in a sense, the musician is not alone. And furthermore, once the work leaves the studio, it continues to connect with listeners—who may just think they themselves are alone. At a time when change has separated me from the ones I love (no, not change as in “death”, just change change), I have found solace in those who also perceive themselves in the singular. In books and in music. And in people, too. In the penultimate track, “Yin and Yang”, Johnson not only plucks the strings in the jazz fashion, but he uses a bow in a more classical style to make melody. This sort of call and response shows that even one instrument can be in dialogue with itself. Now, I don’t know how healthy it is to talk to oneself for too long, but I do know that I am amazed and comforted by this display.
My favorite composition is “Samurai Fly.” It’s use of overdubbing (layering different audio material to make it seem like more than one instrument is playing) is playful and perhaps more sumo than samurai. It is certainly heavier than previous pieces. Yet I feel it retains a nimble mobility, keeping the listener on their toes. Then we return to more thrumming bass in “Love Theme from Spartacus.” Here, Johnson imaginatively lends a tender tone to a piece which name alludes to a culture with connotations of being tough. Such skill one can appreciate.
Musicians are always in conversation with their past selves, their performances but also with the history of composition. Whether it’s Miles Davis’ tune—made notable by Bill Evans—“Nardis” (track two) or one of Johnson’s own, music has a way of corresponding with itself as time goes by. And the listener, too, is included of course. Without the listener, there would merely be some guy plucking at several bass strings in a basement, all on his lonesome. I am here however, and Overpass doesn’t pass me over, rather it passes through me and allows me to sit with it as it sings.