curated by Todd Berryman

Today, we’ve got a crashing-of-the-worlds album, one I first heard on a public radio station out of Louisville as a teenager.

Marc Johnson
Bass Desires (1985)

WFPL was a public radio FM station that struggled to make its way into Washington County, Indiana in the mid-1980s. Trying to pick it up on the best of nights might have involved moving stereo equipment around the room. On stormy nights, wrapping everything in aluminum foil was the only solution. Portable stereos with telescoping antennas were not an improvement.

In short, it was an exercise in frustration, but it was all worthwhile. The format was primarily jazz, with occasional dives into blues, and a whole whopping two hours on Sunday nights of what was then called “college rock” in some circles. I got the chance to hear a lot of wonderful music I would have never had the chance to explore otherwise.

One of the things that WFPL did on weeknights, at exactly 10:05 in the evening after the concert calendar, was a jazz (occasionally blues) feature album. The musical process was more oriented towards traditional jazz, not much in the Kenny G arena here. “Fusion” wasn’t necessarily a dirty word, but it wasn’t often heard on the station – modern jazz would come from a different tip, generally. Those nights in my high school years, listening to the radio, were when I got to hear such great things as Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays’ As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls and the Wayne Johnson Trio’s Everybody’s Painting Pictures, albums that would invariably end up in my “buy” list.

(Yes, I did record albums from the radio on those nights, and if I wasn’t impressed, the tapes would get reused, and if I was, I invariably bought them. I know that tends to put a crimp in the recording industry’s “everybody steals our stuff and we don’t get paid” dynamic, and that was a whole lot of bullshit in my experience anyway. If you think for a moment that the major record labels were not out to screw the audience and the performers they signed over the years, I can provide several books that can back that assessment up for you, plus some time in a record store…and if anything, the artists got it worse.)

Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires came on as the feature album one night in 1985, probably not long after its late spring release. When the DJ – I may have his name spelled wrong – Joe Vincenza would prepare to spin a feature album, he’d usually announce the title, label and release date, then which musicians would appear on it, then the songs for the upcoming side and composers as needed, and then repeat the title and performer, with one simple word to close: “Enjoy.” And I usually did.

In this particular instance, I had an awareness of one of the musicians, guitarist Bill Frisell, whose solo work would later loom much larger in my collection. The rest of the names I didn’t know so well, but I soon would, and it was a who’s who of a certain jazz heritage. Johnson, an upright bassist, was in pianist Bill Evans’ final trio from 1978 to 1980, and knew the right way to fill space, same as his bandleader. Evans played on the legendary Kind of Blue album for Miles Davis in 1959, and the Davis association continued more directly with guitarist John Scofield, who graced three of Miles’ 1980s albums with his work. Frisell was a guitarist that had worked with drummer Paul Motian, and drummer Peter Erskine got started with the Stan Kenton Orchestra before eventually finding his way into working with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, then joining Weather Report. In other words, all the ingredients were good for an unbelievable 50 minutes of instrumental music, probably best described as jazz technique rendered through rock effects.

“Samurai Hee-Haw” opened the album with a perfectly conceived tune that combined the two title elements splendidly, an overlay of Asian motifs on top of country-leaning stringbends but filtered through some off-kilter progressions that never lapsed into cliche, a trick in and of itself. The song was one of two composed by Johnson, and the engineering of Jan Erik Kongshaug and production by ECM label head Manfred Eicher were top-notch: I could feel the pull and snap of each string on the bass, thanks to close-miking the instruments in addition to good room sound.

John Coltrane’s “Resolution” came next, one of three covers on the album, and if anything, it made me feel the experience of this classic piece from A Love Supreme even more intensely than the original, because it became not just a cover, but a vehicle for improvisation that took the melody to other places, the intertwined guitars in detuned style (Scofield on the right, Frisell on guitar synthesizer on the left) referencing some of Coltrane’s more way out moments while still being imminently listenable, with a repeating coda on guitar synth (Frisell) that might have been Morse code to Coltrane in heaven. Special note must be made at this point regarding Erskine on the drumkit, as by this point I had decided he was one of the most truly melodic players of the drums I’d ever heard – he was all over the set, but not flashy or show-offy about it, he simply wore the drums like a second skin. There’s not a misplaced beat anywhere here…it all served the song.

“Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” was the closing song of Side 1, the second cover, a traditional (probably) Scottish-by-way-of-Appalachia piece most commonly associated with the late Nina Simone. In this instance, the song was done in something like free time, with no discernible metronomic beat, other than the one set by the musicians themselves. Frisell’s ghostly ambience on the left, with guitar synth and slightly sour pitching in the notes (which is a plus, the “country” aspect of his playing made much more obvious) sets up some amazing distorted Scofield lead on the right side, among the truly grungiest playing he’s ever done, with Johnson anchoring the proceedings with well-chosen accent notes, and Erskine spraying occasional percussive filigree. This version of the song is easily one of the most well-played and haunting mood pieces ever laid onto tape.

Side 2 is also a masterpiece in sequencing, but I want to give special attention to the other Marc Johnson composition, “Mojo Highway” that appears in the middle of the side. This follows a variation of the model established in “Samurai Hee-Haw” – in fact, it almost reads like a Part 2 – but with more of a reggae feel in the overall rhythmic structure, especially in its sense of open space. This particular track jumped into my heart years after first exposure, as I was playing the tape in the car one summer night, driving from home to work at a radio job, about an hour’s travel, and somewhere in Brown County, Indiana, this one hooked in HARD. Somehow between the sultry temperature, a car with no air conditioning, and the windows down, it suddenly went from being interesting to being essential, one of the best surprises.

A couple years later, the players all scattered in different directions, although the roots of change were already in play, as Johnson and Erskine were working more or less concurrently with guitarist John Abercrombie as his rhythm section during the same time period (roughly 1985 to 1989). Johnson and Frisell later reunited on an album called The Sound of Summer Running in 1997 (which included Pat Metheny as the other guitarist). Erskine later landed as the drummer on Steely Dan’s 1993 comeback tour – and having seen one of those shows, I can say I wish he’d done more with them, because he was on fire. Scofield went on to do some great albums that got attention in the rock world, including a Ray Charles tribute album featuring guitarist John Mayer as a guest, and a pretty nifty collaboration with Medeski, Martin and Wood in the late 1990s. Frisell started a string of great conceptual albums in the 1990s, including a fusion with the world of bluegrass on Nashville by joining forces with members of Alison Krauss’ Union Station that still stands as one of my favorite recordings. He continues to amaze me with each new release.

As for the Bass Desires ensemble as a whole, we were only graced with two total albums by them (the other being 1988’s Second Sight), but there’s not much else exactly like this music in the world, and it’s still a standard I measure a lot of instrumental music against.

Further research:

From a February 1986 performance in Frankfurt, Germany, another look at “Samurai Hee-Haw” here. Notice Marc Johnson’s playing style on the opening riff.

And from the same Frankfurt show, “Resolution” in a stretched-out take, split in two parts. Note John Scofield getting fed up enough with his glasses to take them off around 2:30. 🙂 Also note Bill Frisell’s amazing use of guitar harmonics, most obviously at 6:16 and 6:37, and especially starting around 6:58. First:

And second, Marc Johnson’s time to shine on upright bass, with extra background ambience from Frisell, and then Peter Erskine taking it home (starting on brushes, no less, then dropping a stick at 4:07 and continuing like it ain’t no thing):

Same concert, “Mojo Highway”:

Same band, two years later in Austria, promoting their second collaboration, now being billed either as Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires, or simply Bass Desires. “Samurai Hee-Haw” opens (and how that song morphs from both the studio take and the other live version above), and then new song “Twister” (written by Bill Frisell) starts at 9:52. (Volume’s a little lower on this video.)

And Johnson with Bill Evans, for some context. This was six years before the recording and release of Bass Desires.


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