Blindfold Test: Marc Johnson


“This is right up my alley,” Marc Johnson said of a Gary Peacock cut.

(Photo: Caroline Fontanieu)

Bassist Marc Johnson says, “Rhythmically, a bassist has to perform very secure and confident phrases to really communicate their ideas clearly. That is true of any improvising musician, but especially a bass player.” He’s a veteran who broke into the spotlight with Bill Evans, joining up with him in 1978. His bands have included Bass Desires, with Bill Frisell and John Scofield, and Right Brain Patrol. He serves as the anchor for the band led by his wife, pianist/vocalist Eliane Elias. And, last year, he released a solo album, Overpass (ECM), which received 4½ stars in the December 2021 issue of DownBeat. At his home study in East Hampton, New York, Johnson took his very first Blindfold Test.

Stanley Clarke

“I Mean You” (Standards, Kind of Blue, 2006) Clarke, bass; Patrice Rushen, piano; Ndugu Chancler, drums.

I like the Monk tune with its rhythmic possibilities, where you can jostle around. The bass player goes into the upper register à la Gary Peacock. He’s doing so much extraordinary stuff on the double bass like playing fast with leaps, but it’s hard to take solos in this context. So, this isn’t compelling enough. I’ll give it 3 stars.

Gary Peacock

“Only Now” (Just So Happens, Postcards, 1994) Gary Peacock, bass; Bill Frisell, guitar.

This is right up my alley. I don’t know who this is, but that adventurous repetition is something I’ve done a lot in my career. The approach to the content is something I can relate to. The guitar stuff is so Frisellian. I’m so fond of Bill’s playing. The bass player sounds like it could be some ECM Scandinavian, but it could also be Gary Peacock, even though I didn’t know he was into that kind of repetitive sound. I can hear his warmth, point and elasticity of his bass. He articulates so well. I can hear the juice of the sound with his bass and Bill’s pointillism and oddball intervals in little clusters. This is fun, like a Kandinsky painting in sound.

Christian McBride Trio

“Ham Hocks And Cabbage” (Out Here, Mack Avenue, 2013) McBride, bass; Christian Sands, piano; Ulysses Owens Jr., drums.

They’re playing in a sound that’s Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson. The playing is competent. The tune starts out good, then has some wobbly moments that get cleared up toward the end. The intention is from that traditional school. The bass is recorded well, probably with a microphone. I was thinking maybe John Clayton, but it doesn’t quite sound like him. It’s Christian? He does walk like Christian. At the beginning of his solo he was laying back on the phrasing, and it doesn’t sound like his bandmates were hanging with that. But you can hear Christian as a student of the bass driving the beat like nobody else can. He’s imaginative, soulful and articulates with his left hand really well. His playing can be contagious, but for this tune, 3 stars.

Ron Carter

“Blues Farm” (Blues Farm, CTI/Sony, 2003, rec’d 1973) Carter, bass; Hubert Laws, flute; Bob James, piano; Billy Cobham, drums; Ralph Peterson, percussion; others.

A couple of things clued me in to who this could be. With those low extensions on the bass, it had to be Ron Carter. With this particular track, I don’t know if this was his intention or the studio producer: “Hey, let’s do a rock tune. We can record and overdub the melody.” I’m sure Ron was game. There are hallmarks of his playing, like his subtle glissandos. This is not my favorite Ron Carter track by a long shot. I would not have gravitated to this. But I love him. I’ll give Ron 5 stars for anything.

Ben Allison

“Realization” (Peace Pipe, Palmetto, 2002) Allison, bass; Michael Blake, saxophone, bass clarinet; Frank Kimbrough, keyboards; Michael Sarin, drums.

This to me is real music. The bassist has the sensibility of playing through the harmony and interjecting things while he’s walking and using the sensibility of the horns in the way the harmony moves. It’s just gorgeous. Ah, Ben Allison. I don’t know this track, but I strongly relate to his approach. He’s a man after my own heart. He’s such a good guy on so many different levels. He’s a community builder who embodies the spirit of jazz.

Dave Holland/Kenny Barron

“The Oracle” (The Art Of Conversation, Impulse, 2014) Holland, bass; Barron, piano.

This starts out nice. It’s pretty with nothing clanky to distract you from entering the sound space. It’s reminiscent of the Bill Evans/Scott LaFaro approach. The bassist plays up and down the strings with a little bit of legato. He’s not attacking every note. I can hear the details, but at some point, it’s not compelling. At times the bass player hits some tension notes, but for the most part he was just up and down. For the most part, this is hitting me kind of average. It’s Dave? Holy cow, I don’t usually associate that sound with Dave’s playing. At one time in my development, he was very important. His sound is beautiful and is a little more aggressive than what he’s playing here. Still, I’ll give this 4 stars.

Charles Mingus

“Serenade In Blue” (Debut Records Story, Debut/Fantasy, 1997, rec’d 1955) Mingus, bass; Eddie Bert, trombone; George Barrow, tenor saxophone; Mal Waldron, piano; Willie Jones, drums.

This could easily be Mingus because of the arrangements and the way the horn parts are distributed in the ensemble. He starts the piece out bowing and blending that sound into the same passage the horns are taking. Very cool. This track sounds like early Mingus, but it’s got that essential spirit and soul. I love Mingus.

Charlie Haden/Jim Hall

“In The Moment” (Charlie Haden/Jim Hall, Impulse, 2014) Haden, bass; Hall, guitar.

There’s too much reverb and the bass is tucked back so far. But I could hear phrases that sound like Charlie Haden. Charlie and the guitarist play angular, a little free. They have motivic material to play off, and there’s definitely a tune in there. The composition hangs together when they solo. Even though it’s free, it still has structural integrity. Great improvisors who play in the free world imply structure and impose structure in the process of creating. 5 stars. DB

The “Blindfold Test” is a listening test that challenges the featured artist to discuss and identify the music and musicians who performed on selected recordings. The artist is then asked to rate each tune using a 5-star system. No information is given to the artist prior to the test.

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