Bass Influences – Jimmy Johnson

jimmy_johnson

Question. What do James Taylor, Allan Holdsworth, Lee Ritenour, Sérgio Mendes, Steve Gadd, Flim & the BB’s, and even comedian Joan Rivers (yes, that Joan Rivers) have in common? Each and every one of them have at one time or another employed bassist Jimmy Johnson to occupy the bass chair in their band.[1]

Jimmy Johnson might seem an odd bass influence. His playing isn’t immediately flashy, he rarely solos, and stands relatively still onstage while holding down the groove. Even his look is fairly antiquated with his long ponytail, oversized spectacles, and wispy beard. But all of these (and more) are the exact things I love about Johnson.  In fact, his ethos is probably closest to the one to which I aspire: walk humbly and surprise by carrying a huge groove.

Johnson is noteworthy for being one of the early adopters of the extended-range electric bass, acquiring his first 5-string bass in 1976. Johnson said that he did this because he was seeking to emulate the extended range of the C extension on his father’s upright bass.[2] Johnson contacted the Alembic bass company and ask them if they would consider making him a custom-built 5-string bass that placed the fifth string on the bottom instead the normal high C string that they were producing at the time. Alembic agreed and Johnson (along Anthony Jackson’s use of Carl Thompson’s 6-string basses) went on to add a new chapter to the unwritten rule book entitled “Things Electric Bass Players Need to Know How to Do.”

The following three videos hopefully will suffice in giving the reader some idea of the musical breadth and stylistic depth of Johnson’s playing. The first video is a performance of James Taylor’s classic “Your Smiling Face” from JT’s Squibnocket video. The original version of this song contained another well-known rhythm section of drummer Russ Kunkel and bassist Leland Sklar. In the Squibnocket video Johnson is paired with the late drummer Carlos Vega and together the two of them groove effortlessly. Johnson’s version retains most of Sklar’s original bass line (including the iconic bass breakdown at the beginning of the final modulation) but he alters things in subtle ways that add his own unique stamp to the song. The most obvious change is the use of the lower, sub-low E notes available on his Alembic 5-string.

The next musical example seems to be several musical galaxies away from JT’s breezy 1970s folk-pop. It is the studio recording of the tune “Devil Take the Hindmost” by guitarist Allan Holdsworth from the album Metal Fatigue. Holdsworth’s music is notoriously impenetrable, full of knotted chords, twisting polyrhythms, and virtuoso solos that stretch the boundaries of modern tonality. This particular recording features Holdsworth’s longest-lasting trio as he is assisted by Johnson and drummer Chad Wackerman. “Devil Take the Hindmost” is notable in that it features a rare solo section where Holdsworth solos over a single chord (G minor) with a drummer simply keeping time. Of course, this is still an Allan Holdsworth tune and so Wackerman “keeps time” in a very elastic way while Johnson seems to simultaneously respond to his band-mates and push them at the same time as he uses every inch of the neck to vamp (kinda sorta) in G minor.

The final video features Johnson performing in my favorite of his musical settings: as the bassist and band leader of the now-defunct Flim & the BB’s.[3] The band recorded five acclaimed CDs for DMP Records and two equally lauded albums for Warner Bros. The song in this video is called “Universe of Two” and comes from the band’s final Warner Bros. album entitled This is a Recording. This song is notable for two reasons. First, it finds Johnson playing an Alembic 5-string fretless with gorgeous tone and perfect intonation. Secondly, it features a rare Johnson bass solo full of luxurious slides and beautiful work high up on the neck. “Universe for Two” is one of the finest songs off of a great album. The album is out-of-print, so snap up a copy if you run across a used one.

I always enjoy Johnson’s work with JT as he now plays alongside drummer Steve Gadd in that band. Johnson also remains active with Holdsworth’s bands. Johnson’s session work has been widely varied and always interesting. I particularly enjoy his work on the Dave Grusin/Lee Ritenour classic Harlequin. But most of all I miss Flim & the BB’s. The band never received the accolades they deserved. Their music was thoughtlessly lumped in with smooth jazz but featured far too much cleverness and nuance to work in a smooth jazz format. Flim & the BB’s was a four piece band that did not normally include a guitar player,[4] meaning that Johnson’s bass was usually front and center in the group’s music.

As a bonus, here is the link YouTube playlist of some very rare television footage of the band playing at an unknown date. Give the antiquated Apple Classic flanking pianist Billy Barber, I would have to say these videos were shot in the very late 1980s or early 1990s.

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1. In the case of Joan Rivers, Johnson was the bassist in the house band for the comedienne’s short-lived, mid-1980s show entitled The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. The house band was called “Mark Hudson, The Party Boys and The Tramp.”

2. Johnson’s father was a double bassist with the Minnesota Orchestra and a piano technician.

3. The band’s name is mashup of three of the four members of the band. “Flim” is Johnson’s nickname while the “BBs” stand for two other players in the group with BB initials — drummer Bill Berg and pianist Billy Barber.

4. Session guitarist Michael Landau appears as a guest on one track on This is a Recording.

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