Double bassist Marc Johnson, from the US’s mid-west, was in Bill Evans last trio; pianist Eliane Elias, from Sao Paulo in Brazil, first came to wide attention in Steps Ahead. They have been a couple for a long time now, and the near-telepathic interchange of the bass and piano throughout this album, their rising and falling at one to heighten the tension of a phrase and then to release it, is a joy to hear.
Just try the opening title track for a taste. It’s a trio track and Joey Baron’s drumming is so subtle it’s like punctuation marks in the poetry.
By track two, It’s Time, the fourth member of the band has added his inimitable voice to these other similarly inimitable ones. The tenor tone is high and metallic, on the very edge of wavering with emotion, keeping it ever so delicately in check like a high-wire artist. Yes, it’s Joe Lovano.
Elias has made some fabulous vocal albums and isn’t shy when it comes to promoting them in full glamour mode. She is also a fabulous pianist, and, while there have always been strong solos on those vocal albums, it’s especially good to hear her in this purely instrumental context, stretching out in such supportive company.
She does a marvellous thing in a solo, keeping the right hand single note runs to a minimum and mixing them in with her own very personal take on the kind of slurred phrasing that characterised ’60s soul-jazz. And on top of that, that Brazilian rhythmic flair means she can really whip up a great groove. On One Thousand And One Nights it has a more North African/Arabic feel, but B Is For Butterfly is where she really shows it off – it’s there in the melody itself, which she composed, and then she builds and builds the swing ever so subtly, until the thing is racing along in ecstatic fashion. Just sensational!
And Marc Johnson – such a complete bass player, the kind that not only plays beautifully and solos elegantly in his own right but makes everyone else in the band sound even better than they do already. The most intelligently supportive and generous of players. And a beautifully articulated solo on that same B Is For Butterfly is just one example of his improvising.
Baron does his barely there but absolutely crucial trick throughout, and although Lovano not on every track he adds just the right thing when he is.
The compositions, all by Johnson, Elias or the two together, are songlike, lyrical and have a country serenity to them – they were all written in their home out in the Hamptons in New York State. Johnson’s bluesy Midnight Blue, Elias’s ballad Moments with Lovano particularly lyrical, Johnson’s Eastern-tinged Foujita – there are just too many highlights on this disc. The whole thing is highlights!
It’s also beautifully programmed with the gentle closer a superb solo reading by Johnson of the American folk song Shenandoah.
I have a whole bunch of fine albums in both their names on my shelves, but I think this might just be my favourite. And maybe their finest hour so far.
Swept Away is released in the UK on Monday.