Now, at long last, Johnson is back with another new disc, Shades of Jade (although, to be fair, he never really went away; he’s had steady work as a sideman with many great players including Charles Lloyd, John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner). The personnel aren't the same, though Lovano and Scofield do return and the the sound of these 10 tracks is very different from Bass Desires, but it still feels like meeting up again with an old acquaintance who has grown and matured and changed in a lot of ways, but is still basically the same old guy.
You’ve got to wonder what’s happened in Johnson’s life over the past 20 years. Whereas Bass Desires had a mad, youthful energy, full of noise and experimentation, "Shades of Jade" is mostly breezey, mellow and reflective, as if everyone realized long ago that they didn’t have anything to prove to anyone. Such confidence is necessary to pull off diaphanous, meandering tunes like "Ton Sur Ton," "Since You Asked" and the title track; otherwise, you could imagine they might just melt away like a sand castle or spring snow.
There are a couple rousing tracks. "Blue Nefertiti" swings at a mid-tempo while quoting Wayne Shorter’s "Nefertiti," and "Raise" brings to mind a heated Kenny Garrett blowing session. The images of sand castles and late-season snow are mostly appropriate, however, because nearly the whole album is steeped in a wistfulness that recalls forgotten youth, long-lost loves, favorite memories from seaside vacations of yore, things slipping away.
That sounds sappy and, well, depressing, but again the confidence and maturity of the musicians keeps it from degenerating into cliches. Shades of Jade is really quite fresh and original, which makes it exciting, though exciting the way a solar eclipse is, rather than, say, a space shuttle launch.
Drummer Joey Baron helps imbue this excitement, finding an amazing palette of colors in his drum set and, as usual, forging powerful musical bonds with his fellow musicians. But to my ears, pianist Eliane Elias steals the show. From the very first track she offers solid ground for Johnson to build his delicate structures on. Her solo in "Ton Sur Ton" is brilliant; the figure she repeats in the title track is the flicker of the fire that illuminates the rest of the piece; and "Snow" belongs almost entirely to her.
That isn’t to say the rest of the musicians don’t pony up, too. Lovano can wield his sax with the deftness of one of those artisans who paints miniature scenes on grains of rice. Scofield, as artful a noise-maker as any modern guitarist, shows off his remarkable control of nuance and touch. There’s a great deal to listen to on this hour-long album, but I hope we don’t have to wait another 20 years for more.