Jimmy Johnson’s Bass Concept (Guitar World 1989)
Holding it down for Holdsworth: Jimmy Johnson's bass concept
Guitar World, May 1989
"TO ME, HE'S the ultimate bass player. I can't think of anybody else on the planet I'd rather have play bass, just because of the way he thinks and feels about the instrument. The way he defines the role in this band, and in anything I've ever heard him do, is just awesome. It's the function of the bass taken to the maximum, and I just love it. What else can I say?"
The essence of this description by bandleader Allan Holdsworth - who's locked up at various points in time with a coterie of bassists ranging from Tony Newton to Alphonso Johnson, Jeff Berlin, Gary Willis and beyond - sits well upon the unassuming but eminently versatile Jimmy Johnson. Sublime soloist, unerring supporter and low-frequency foil to some of fusion's most unearthly excursions in recent memory, the Minneapolis-bred Johnson has held down the bottom for Holdsworth since 1985, when drummer Chad Wackerman's invitation to a rehearsal led to the bassist's becoming a key element of that years' acclaimed Metal Fatigue. Johnson's contributions to the guitarist's subsequent recordings - Atavachron, Sand and Secrets - became increasingly vital to Holdsworth's sound and direction.
Johnson's free-blowing, linear approach is also a calling card that has earned him entry to and sustenance in the highly competitive Los Angeles studio program. He expertly balances that work with his tours with Holdsworth and sessions with his transplanted hometown ensemble, Flim & The BB's. Their native Minneapolis, as clarinet-trained Johnson recalls it, proved a slightly more progressive environment for musical development than conventional wisdom would indicate.
"My dad [Cliff Johnson] is a bass player with the Minnesota Orchestra, and I started to play bass on the side when I was about eleven; my mom would sometimes write notes to the principal to get me out to do jingles," he laughs. "When I got done with high school I was already active enough on bass to the point where I could say, 'Well, I'm working'
"Film & The BB's were kind of a studio rhythm section back then, doing commercials and some record albums," he continues. "At the time, 3M was working on inventing their digital recording machines. They would bring over these thrown-together things with all this breadboard circuitry in the backs of pickup trucks to the studio, Sound 80, and we would kinda just get together to play some music into this thing and see if it would record." Manning the board at many of these experiments was Tom Jung, who would eventually found the all digital label dmp and reassemble what he remembered as "that good test band" for several successful compact disc releases, including Neon, Tricycle and The Further Adventures of Flim and the BB's.
"It's nice, melodic music - not very dark," laughs Johnson of the commercially targeted, direct-to-disc projects, which, apart from isolated solo spots such as the demanding ostinato opening [to] Neon's "Fish Magic," require precious little of the fancy footwork held in reserve by the well-heeled bassist. "Actually, the liner notes on that one boast, 'We don't overdub, we don't remix, blab blah blah.' Well, I've got to set something straight - I overdubbed that part. It's very embarrassing, But we have a good time anyway. It's such a different approach to jazz in terms of the recording techniques we use, but it's nice."
Quite literally at the other end of the sonic spectrum is Holdsworth's blissful analog mayhem, Although his soloing abilities are documented extensively throughout the catalogue - see Metal Fatigue's remarkably lyrical "Panic Station," Sand's frantic '4Pud Wud" or Secrets' sensitive. "54 Duncan Terrace" for the tip of the iceberg - it's with thick, five-string support that Johnson adds color, depth and melody to the foundation of Allan's provocative compositions.
"Bass players in general have a strange approach to what they're supposed to play," he observes. "It's actually a concept, and people don't realize that until they try for the first time to play a bass part and make it seem natural. It's actually kind of a weird way to think. If a guitar player tries to play a bass part, he'll find out that it's physically easy to do - playing the roots and stuff - but the actual approach is what's odd for people. I think that applies to Allan; his music is really rich harmonically, but it's kind of flexible with respect to which chord tone he wants to hear on the
very bottom. The chords are often complicated to the point where any of three or four different notes will work fine. So, instead of actually presenting me with a chart with the notes he wants on the bottom, we experiment with the parts and come up with them together. It's really fun. He has some specific ideas a lot of times; if there's a pedal point or something, he'll say it. But on a lot of the stuff, where the chords are going by in a hurry, we'll just sit down and figure out what works, and I'll try to write a bassline that leads and makes some melodic sense on its own."
According to Johnson, that same harmonic freedom is at work whether he's working through change-heavy tunes or building up from a simple pedal-tone framework. "The simple progressions are equally fun," he says. "That's a whole other deal. There you're talking about grooving and filling. I think Al wrote 'Devil Take The Hindmost' to contrast all his tunes that have a lot of chords: 'Try this one - Just go to G...for days!' So Chad and I tried to lay something down and get a little silly. I wish I'd gotten more silly new that I listen back to it. And harmonically, he just takes off on it. I can't exactly hang on to all of it, but he goes to Mars on the stuff."
The Holdsworth band's loose structure and erratic work agenda often dictates that such drummers as Wackerman, Gary Husband and Vinnie Colaiuta juggle the sticks amongst themselves to suit their own hectic recording schedules. Because Johnson remains a constant factor in the equation (he's managed to keep gigs that allow him to sub out when Allan needs him), he's developed a responsive sense for the music no matter which direction it's being pulled Between Chad's sharp, kinetic attack, Husband's lush, active approach and Colaiuta's remarkable hybrid of the two, the bassist truly has his job cut out for him.
"The first time I played with Husband was a one-off gig in Milwaukee, out of the blue" Jimmy recalls. "Allan cancelled a tour for some reason and had one gig he just couldn't get out of, and Chad wasn't available, so Husband came over and played it. We met in the middle of the country, rented a bunch of gear and played this gig, and it was, like, 'Yow! Where is this guy going?' It was wild. I loved it. It was so different, such a contrast. It's amazing how it changes the material around, just how each approaches it."
As an accompanist, Johnson prefers a keyboard's support. "It's really tricky playing a trio with Al, because when he starts to take a solo, I wish I could be comping as cool as he comps. I can't do it. Jeff Berlin can play a lot of voicings, but I'm more of a one-note-at-a-time guy. It's actually more fun for me because I don't have to systematically think it out; I can play the bass note, hear the chord and then take it from there.
"I feel like I want to be on the bottom," he elaborates. "I usually end up down there. I think I think linear because of my clarinet training; that's a melody instrument if ever there was one, and I think a lot of that actually transferred over, whether I knew it or not. Soloing, that's where that comes from. I'm not really trained enough to know which scales are supposed to fit where. People say, 'Well, you're playing a half-demolished-something-or-other scale there,' and I say, 'Really?' It's just by ear - I'm just' trying to play melodies that hold together. And in playing basslines, I guess some of that applies as well. I want to lead to the next note. If there's a little hole I'll jump in. I'll take a chance."
Two Alembic Series II five-strings afford Johnson the extended range necessary to wax adventurous without being abrasive. A devotee since 1976, he was one of the first bassists in L.A. to work with an extra string. He credits his discovery of the instrument to his father's symphony bass experience: "They usually have an extension on upright basses that goes down to low C. I was trying to figure out how to do that on electric, and my dad said, 'Well, there's also five-string basses.' They were making them back then, but with a high C, and I preferred the bottom. I don't have a whole lot of desire to go higher than the bass can go."
His fretted and fretless (strung, respectively, with GHS Boomers and "an old set of Superwounds that never seems to die") are both stock except for a master volume control, although an instrument stolen from him after a show in Poughkeepsie was equipped with a quick-release tailpiece.
(Any information regarding this bass' whereabouts should be directed to these offices.) Their electronics include a separate power supply and a stereo option Johnson takes occasional advantage of, taking the pickups to tape in stereo and splitting them slightly to create a subtle spread.
For live applications, Johnson maintains two specialized rigs. The smaller one, for clubs like the Baked Potato, consists of a three-hundred-watt miniature switching Walter Woods head and two EV 12's. His larger rig, for, in his professional estimation, "more fun," revolves around several Yamaha PD2500 power amps and a Myers speaker system, using a subwoofer cabinet and two separate two-way cabinets with a horn and a 12 in each. "I thought I'd try a full-range keyboard rig," he explains. "I like the sound of direct bass because I'm used to hearing that in the studio." For legitimate sessions, Jimmy travels light, carrying Simon System active boxes, units he finds compatible with his Alembics' output.
And being tight and mobile for sessions sits easy, whether it's for a Lee Ritenour or David Benoit record, an out-of-the-blue call for some fretless swing work for Natalie Cole, dates for the upcoming George Massenburg-produced Flim & The BB's project, a TV film soundtrack or any one of the various jingle jobs Johnson tackles regularly. None of it, he feels, is as challenging - or as unpredictable - as any single moment with the maestro.
"We never know where he's going," he laughs, "but if he starts to go, we usually go too. It all flows out. Husband was the wildest for that. If Allan would start really wailing, he would start really walling and the whole band would just go to the moon. The Wayne Johnson Band was kind of like that, too. If I was feeling strong about playing some strange groove all of a sudden, I would just start, and then everybody would either take it or leave it - so we try to respond to what he's doing. Which, when he goes into doing Al, is some kind of a trick.
"I'm not really a super-mainstream workerbee out here," he continues. "I do records and jingles, and jingles are pretty painless because they go by really fast. I don't really do a lot of stuff that's super tedious. Some of the TV/film stuff is kind of like that, though; you'll have to count for eighty-five bars and then come in with a big low F, and hope that you counted right. It just consumes your brain. But Allan's thing is just the total opposite of any of that kind of work; it's just, 'Get out there and blow.' You never know what's going to happen. And that makes it interesting. It's just one of those bands. You're proud to come into a town and be playing with Allan. It's one of the few gigs like that, and I'm really glad to be involved."