Born Marc Alan Johnson on October 21, 1953, in Omaha, NE; University of North Texas, completed music studies program. Addresses: Record company--ECM Records, Universal Classics Group, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019, phone: Tina Pelikan, (212) 333-1405, fax: (212) 445-3509, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since rising to prominence in the jazz world as the bass player in Bill Evans's last trio in the late 1970s, Marc Johnson has carved a distinct musical niche. Performing on the double bass, the largest and deepest-toned instrument in the violin family, Johnson has collaborated with and accompanied some of the biggest names in contemporary jazz, including Evans, guitarists John Abercrombie, John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Wolfgang Muthspiel, and Ralph Towner; drummers Joe Baron, Paul Motian, Jack DeJohnette and Peter Erskine; vibist Gary Burton; saxophonists Stan Getz and Joe Lovano; and pianists Lyle Mays and Eliane Elias. In addition, he has established himself as an accomplished band leader, composer, and innovative musician since forming Bass Desires in the mid-1980s, and has recorded several critically well-received solo albums on the Verve and ECM labels. Johnson has attributed much of the warmth of the sound he produces to his instrument, built in 1739. "It has a wonderfully warm, buttery tone," he stated in a PolyGram press release.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, on October 21, 1953, Johnson studied piano and cello before switching to double bass when he was 16. When he was 19 he completed the music studies program at the University of North Texas, while concurrently performing with the Fort Worth Symphony. He toured with the Woody Herman Band in the mid-1970s, which led him to an opportunity to sit in with legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans at New York City's Village Vanguard jazz club in Greenwich Village. He was 25 when Evans invited him to join his trio in 1978. Evans won a Grammy Award for the album We Will Meet Again, featuring accompaniment by Joe LaBarbera and Johnson. "I was still a very young player when I was with Bill," Johnson was quoted in a press release, "but by playing with him night after night I matured a lot. My confidence grew, my ability to concentrate heightened, my sense of timing improved, and my knowledge of harmony expanded." Johnson and drummer LaBarbera played with Evans for two years before the pianist died of a hemorrhaging ulcer and bronchial pneumonia, probably brought on by his long and well-documented addictions to heroin and cocaine. The trio's last performances were released in 1997 on the six-CD set Turn Out the Stars.
Following Evans's death Johnson worked hard to establish a reputation distinct from that of his previous employer. "In 1984, when I first had an opportunity to do something on my own ... I wanted to do something completely different from my previous association with Bill Evans, so as not to recreate the experience I had with that trio," he was quoted as saying in a press release. "I listened to all kinds of music, from the Beatles to Bob Dylan, Beethoven to Ravel, the Allman Brothers to Jimi Hendrix. I had rather eclectic tastes." By his late teenage years, however, Johnson had become a confirmed jazz fanatic, listing the music of Evans and jazz trumpet player and compositional innovator Miles Davis among his genre passions. Integrating his love of blues-based rock with jazz led him to form Bass Desires. Featuring two guitarists, John Scofield and Bill Frisell, and drummer Peter Erskine, the group recorded two albums, Bass Desires and Second Sight. "Writing for a two-guitar format brings together my earliest musical influences, my musical 'first loves,'" he said in a press release.
Throughout the remainder of the 1980s and early 1990s, Johnson recorded and toured extensively with guitar virtuoso and band leader John Abercrombie, recording several albums for the prestigious ECM label. These included the trio album John Abercrombie/Marc Johnson/Peter Erskine in 1988, Hymn with Abercrombie, Bob Mintzner and Erskine in 1990, and November with Abercrombie, Erskine and John Surman in 1992. He also recorded an album of four duets, Two by Four, in 1991. In 1993 Johnson released Right Brain Patrol, an album showcasing his leadership of a trio that also included guitarist Ben Monder and percussionist and sometime vocalist Arto Tuncboyaciayn. The album featured a solo bass composition, "Batuki Burundi," written and played by Johnson. In 1995 he released another trio album, Magic Labyrinth, with Tuncboyaciayan and guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel.
Johnson's affinity for working with two guitarists resurfaced on his 1997 recording The Sound of Summer Running. For this project he brought together guitarists Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny and drummer Joey Baron. "Bill Frisell and I had played together, but neither of us had played with Pat Metheny, so this was a first," Johnson explained in a Polygram press release. "Joey Baron was a likely choice as the drummer because of his long association with Frisell, and he's one of my favorite musicians." The album took its name from a story by Ray Bradbury, and has a distinctive American Midwestern feel. "I wanted to write music that spoke clearly and simply to the heart. ... Once I decided to do kind of a 'heartland' album, the writing flowed fairly freely," he stated in the press release. Johnson shared composition responsibilities with Metheny, who contributed one piece and played a 42-string guitar, and Frisell, who wrote two pieces. "Those guys are so diverse and their ranges are so large ... they can play with authority anything from free improvisation to Country & Western," Johnson said in the press release. "Both of them are master musicians, and I knew they were going to play well together. But I didn't realize how well until I was in the studio with them. They floored me on every take."
In 1999 Johnson released If Trees Could Fly with cellist Eric Longsworth. The only two instruments used on the album were the bass and electric cello. According to critic Chris Massey on the Pop Matters website, "The beauty of the music [on] this album is the interaction between these two unadorned sounds. ... This album is aptly named---if trees could fly, it would hardly match the musical accomplishment of these two musicians."
For his 2005 release Shades of Jade, Johnson teamed with saxophonist Joe Lovano, guitarist John Scofield, drummer Joey Baron, organist Alain Mallet, and pianist and composer Eliane Elias. According to an ECM press release, the album title was inspired by Scott La Faro, a bassist for the Bill Evans Trio in the early 1960s. La Faro composed "Jade Visions," which appeared on the trio's 1961 album Sunday at the Village Vanguard. It was described in the press release as "an object lesson in how intensity could be focused in inward-looking music, of enduring beauty." Time magazine jazz critic Romesh Ratnesar positively assessed the album, noting that "Johnson slides contentedly into the backseat, allowing the other members of a distingtuished ensemble ... to steer the listener through ten intricate, moody melodies. The tempo rarely rises above a moderate shuffle, giving Lovano and Scofield space for lush, lilting solos, while Johnson, pianist Eliane Elias and drummer Joey Baron conjure a swirling, hypnotic soundscape---the perfect backdrop for a rainy autumn afternoon."
Johnson also performs as bassist for such noted jazz band groups as the Charles Lloyd Quartet, the Lee Konitz Trio, the Paul Motian Trio, and the Eliane Elias Trio, and has continued to work with such artists as Abercrombie, Ralph Towner, pianist John Taylor, and bandoneon player Dino Saluzzi. Judging by the company he keeps, he has firmly established himself as one of the leading instrumentalists and composers in the contemporary jazz firmament.
by Bruce Walker
Marc Johnson's Career
Joined Woody Herman Band, 1977; joined Bill Evans Trio, 1978; formed Bass Desires with Bill Frisell and John Scofield, 1985; recorded duets album Two by Four, 1991; recorded Sound of Summer Running, 1998; released Shades of Jade, 2005.
- Selected discography
- Solo albums
- Two by Four Verve, 1991.
- Right Brain Patrol JMT, 1993.
- Magic Labyrinth JMT, 1995.
- Sound of Summer Running Verve, 1997.
- Shades of Jade ECM, 2005.
- With others
- (With Bill Evans Trio) We Will Meet Again Warner Brothers, 1979.
- (With Bill Evans Trio) Turn Out the Stars: Final Village Vanguard Recordings Warner Brothers, 1997.
- (With Bass Desires) Bass Desires ECM, 1985.
- (With Bass Desires) Second Sight ECM, 1987.
- John Abercrombie/Marc Johnson/Peter Erskine ECM, 1988.
- (With John Abercrombie, Bob Mintzer, and Peter Erskine) Hymn ECM, 1990.
- (With John Abercrombie, Peter Erskine, and John Surman) November ECM, 1992.
- (With Eric Longsworth) If Trees Could Fly Intuition, 1999.
- (With Wolfgang Muthspiel and Brian Blade) Real Book Stories Quinton, 2001.
- Time, October 17, 2005.
- "Marc Johnson," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 21, 2006).
- Pop Matters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/j/johnsonmarc-if.shtml (January 21, 2006).
- Additional information was obtained from press releases by ECM, Shades of Jade, 2005; and PolyGram Records, The Sounds of Summer Running, 1997, from which quotations used in this entry were drawn.