For bass players looking for the best sounds of Jaco and Marcus Miller, this is the album for you.
Bassist and composer, Leslie Johnson’s solo release titled Bass & Beyond is just as he described to me over email: a “jazz-fusion and funk, influenced by many musicians from Jaco Pastorius and Marcus Miller all the way to Dave Weckl and Chick Corea”.
Johnson was born in Guatemala City and made a name for himself in music in the United States. Johnson began studying piano at age 15 and bass at age 18. At age 20, Johnson began composing and writing music when the largest christian record label, Integrity Music, signed him as part of the award winning band Vertical.
In 2006, Johnson joined the production team of Grammy Award nominee producer/drummer Alvaro Lopez and at the same time, he became the bass player for Lopez’s band, Resq Band.
As part of Resq Band, Leslie traveled around Latin America for almost 2 years. While in Latin America, Johnson shared playing time with major musical figures including Abraham Laboriel, Michael Landau, Luis Conte, John Peña and many others. In the year of 2010, Johnson began focusing on music production and began to establish himself as a talented producer.
Enter 2014 with the release of Johnson’s solo album, Bass & Beyond.
When Leslie shared the credits and information behind this album, my mind boggled at the sheer volume of talent and skill in this album:
Leslie Johnson shares credits on many albums, live recordings and concerts with artists, musicians and engineers such as: • Grammy Award-winning Mixing Engineer Mauricio Guerrero (Shakira, Beyonce) • Grammy Award-winning Mixing Engineer Rob Burrell (Michael W. Smith…) • Grammy Award-winning Mastering Engineer Marco Ramirez (Intocable, Ministry) • Grammy Award-winning Mastering Engineer Chris Gehringer (Madonna, Rhianna) • Saxophonist Ed Calle (Ricky Martin) • Guitarist Michael Landau (Seal, Miles Davis) • Vine Street Horns (Phill Collins) • Guitarist Gabe Terrado (Lionel Ritchie) • Drummer Marvin McQuitty (Fred Hammond, Israel Houghton) • Percussionist Luis Conte (Madonna, Phil Collins) • Pianist David Garfield (Los Lobotomys, TOTO) • Bassist Abraham Laboriel Sr. (George Benson, Ella Fitzgerald) • Drummer Álvaro López (Luis Miguel, Emmanuel) • Drummer Nikki Glaspie (Beyonce, Jay Z, Kanye West) • Drummer Eric Boseman (Brian McKnight, Abraham Laboriel) • Drummer Jason Palmer (Brian Duncan, Adam Nitti) • Bassist Adam Nitti (Dave Weckl, Chris Carver) • Trumpeter Dan Duncan (Marvin Sapp, Israel Houghton) • Guitarist Jesse Bond (Kanye West, Mary J. Blidge) • Grammy Award-winning christian singer Marcos Witt • Multi Award-winning christian artist Marcela Gándara • Christian singer and producer Julio Melgar • Christian singer Juan Carlos Alvarado …among many others.
Now that’s a list of credits. A whose who of powerhouse session musicians coming together to make some really powerful music.
Bass and Beyond
Everything from the wailing organs, to funk guitar, to punchy audible bass playing underneath an overarching tightness from the band is this album’s strongest set of attributes: familiar but fresh.
Within moments of hearing the opening to the first track, Invincible, I thought to myself, “this sounds like Marcus Miller. Like, a lot like Marcus Miller”. At the time, it was a passing thought because the resemblance musically and tonally from Johnson’s playing was remarkable. However, this observation turned out to be very true throughout the entire album. The closest album that Bass and Beyond reminded me of was Marcus’s 2008 self titled release in more way that one that I’ll touch on throughout this review.
Other initial observations that hit me were that the recording was phenomenally crisp. I had givent the album two listens, one through a set of Sony earbuds and another through my pair of Audio Technica studio headphones and regardless of the listening medium, the album sounded phenomenal. The instruments come through clearly, the drums kick hard and Johnson’s bass tone is to die for. Crispy, articulate and of course, very, very punchy.
Bass and Beyond showcases Johnson in his strongest elements, funk and jazz, but there are moments throughout the album where it will musically deviate from this funky norm. The second track on the album titled “Nothing but Grace” features a gently samba groove and the track never really gets to wild with the funk – which to my ears was a very welcomed change up from the first track. It was a complimentary change up in musical style that seemed to give the album up to this point more depth and perspective.
I mentioned earlier that within the first few notes of the first track, I thought this sounded a lot like Marcus Miller. The 4th track on this album, titled “Mr. M (to Marcus)” and this was certainly the most Marcus-influenced track on the album.
As good as the track sounds and as funky as it is, the track sounded a little too much like Marcus. The hip hop claps, the soulful horns, the bass playing – even the tone of the bass itself sounds too much like Marcus and I suppose not enough like Leslie Johnson. While the track was clearly meant to be a tribute to the bass player himself, part of me was wondering if maybe Johnson was paying too much tribute to Marcus. The influence of him feels so true on this album that at times I wondered if this were a Marcus album. Johnson might have done too good of a job doing Marcus justice.
“Battlefield” is an apt name for the title of this track. The tight, weaving progressive rock opening feels so tight and quick, almost like someone is running through a battlefield trying not to get shot at. Once the introduction is over, the song returns to the funk, the same kind of funk that was heard up to this point in the album: crisp, punchy and very tight. The highlight of this track is certainly the opening progressive rock section. It’s always impressive to hear musicians lay down and perform flawlessly very intricate riffs and passages with such confidence – especially when the recorder is playing.
“Three Days” starts by kicking you right in the ear: a blistering demonstration of up-tempo jazz fusion funk ala 1970 and something you might hear from Jaco Pastorius as well as on albums of artists including The Yellowjackets or Hadrien Feraud and Alain Caron. Tight, tight, tight finger funk at it’s best on this track. Johnson’s playing comes off as sounding so effortless and without any struggle to stay in time the rhythm section and the overarching groove and feel of the band. This is the sign of someone who knows their instrument and knows it very well.
However, it took me a whole second listen to tune into the guitar and keyboard solos that go on on top of Johnson’s playing. To that point it begs the question: who should I be listening to? While my ear goes to Johnson, I don’t feel like he is the showcase musician at times during this track. Guitarist Michael Landau might be the one who should receive the listener’s attention as he breaks away from rhythm guitar and starts soloing, but I found myself getting so distracted by Johnson’s playing that I couldn’t really appreciate the full musical experience of Landau’s solo.
The last track on this album, “The Call”, begins with an organ introduction over a few chords. Immediately, I could feel something was coming. I wasn’t sure what, but something was coming. After about 16 bars, more funk enters. Again, while there was nothing wrong with this particular song and groove in anyway, it felt like a bit of a let down to be hit with more funk at this point in the album. Furthermore, it was still a solid performance, a solid groove and excellent production but at this point in the album, the funky sound seemed to have staled a bit for me.
This is a hell of an album if you are someone into funk, jazz funk and a lot of it. The whole album is a treat for the ears and a lesson in finger funk and equally for music production. It’s an enjoyable listen and definitely something for bass players looking to get a hearty lesson in finger funk to pick up and give some good listens. Damn, it it funky!
At times, the album sounds a little too much like a Marcus Miller performance. So much so that there are times I needed to flip back to the album cover to remind myself that this wasn’t Marcus. That being said though, I can’t think of a better bass player to be compared to.
Bass and Beyond tends to fall into a pitfall common to many solo bass, drum or guitar albums that touch on funky jazz: many of the tracks sound very similar played one after another. While there are times that the tempo changes up or the key changes, the album trends to feel repetitive. The track “Nothing But Grace” was a great track not just for it’s compositional elements, but also because it was so radically different from all the other tracks on the album. It broke up the hard, punchy funkiness and did it with something that complimented the funkiness of the album. I personally would have loved to see one more track like this on the album somewhere between tracks 5 and 6.
As phenomenal as Johnson’s playing it, sometimes I catch myself asking: who am I supposed to be listening to? While Johnson is clearly the star of the album, he also has the support of some all-star musicians on this album who are no slouches on their respective instruments. When these musicians step up and solo, my attention still goes to Johnson and detracts from the person whose attention I’m supposed to be giving: the person with 32 bars to solo over. If you’re purchasing this album, you’re in it for some amazing bass playing and you’re definitely going to get it.