Bass Players To Know: Jimmy Johnson
Keeping good company is a common theme of Bass Players To Know and our latest feature, Jimmy Johnson, does just that. You’ll find his name listed alongside fellow L.A session cats including Leland Sklar, Tony Levin, Hutch Hutchinson, and Nathan East. Known for playing an Alembic 5-string, he brings a punchy and articulate tone to records by Allan Holdsworth, James Taylor, Randy Newman, and countless others.
So Who Is Jimmy Johnson?
Bass frequencies run deep in the Johnson family. Growing up in Minnesota, Jimmy’s mother was a piano teacher and accompanist, his older brother pursued a successful career as a bass player, and his father served as a longtime bassist with the Minnesota Orchestra. As a teenager, Jimmy was already playing on jingle sessions and by the mid-1970s, established a positive reputation in Minneapolis. He developed a relationship with Alembic basses and GHS in 1976 and from then on, was frequently seen and heard with his iconic Alembic 5-string.
By the late 1970s, Johnson decided to move to Los Angeles to continue pursuing session work. He became a founding member of the fusion and progressive rock ensemble, Flim & The BB’s, and released Tricycle, the first of many records, in 1982. He joined Allan Holdsworth for the recording of Atavachron in 1985 and from then on, was frequently called upon for Holdsworth’s tours and sessions. Johnson also worked in James Taylor’s touring band and joined him on record dates throughout the 1990s.
With an ongoing career and credits including Lee Ritenour, Rod Stewart, Randy Newman, Celine Dion, Neil Diamond, and Kenny Loggins, his clear tone, excellent technique, and melodic sensibilities make him an asset to the busy L.A scene. Often working with accomplished session players such as Steve Gadd, Michael Landau, and Larry Goldings, he provides the bottom end to improvisational ensembles and continues to perform live and play sessions.
Let’s Talk Style
Johnson’s playing style combines the sharp mind of a jazz musician with technical mastery and an unabashed sense of creative whimsy. His attention to arrangement and the overall dynamic movement of a song make him the perfect accompanist—one that is refined and reserved when supporting thoughtful lyrics or cleverly outgoing in an instrumental fusion ensemble. With a keen sense of groove and articulate right hand, he is often found alongside legendary L.A. session drummers. He locks in to the groove that they establish, adds a bit of rhythmic conversation, and moves with them dynamically.
Great tone is a calling card of many session players and Johnson’s doesn’t disappoint. While his tone is distinctively modern sounding, he cuts through a mix with precision, heightened midrange, and the addition of a low B string. It is reminiscent of a particular time and place—aka L.A. in the 1980s-90s. Many of the records tend to have a “shine” to their sound due to advances in recording technology and the sophisticated composition of popular music. His playing and tone certainly fit this style and contributed to the overall aesthetic of the era.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Funnels” (Allan Holdsworth: Atavachron)
This track features Johnson as the guider of movement. In a sonic space characterized by lush chords, textural drumming, and lofty guitar leads, he is responsible for defining both the harmony and rhythm with clearly articulated notes and voice leading. He accents the pushed movement of the chords with hints of Latin rhythms and quick embellishments. His supportive yet playful approach spans the range of the instrument and provides essential structure to the piece.
“Shed A Little Light” (James Taylor: James Taylor (Live, 1993))
As soon as the band kicks in, Johnson serves as the perfect accompanist—he locks in the groove, follows the movement of Taylor’s bass notes, and simply makes the band sound good. Playing with a slightly busier approach during the bridge, he integrates quick descending octave hiccups to enhance the dynamics without being overly aggressive or taking away from the core elements of the song.
“Bye Bye Blackbird” (Steve Gadd Band: Way Back Home: Live In Rochester, NY)
Johnson shows off his technical ability, dynamic development, and clever musicality in his solo over this standard. Entering with a beautiful descending line, he moves effortlessly around the neck with the precision of a studio player and melodic sensibility of any accomplished soloist. As the tune progresses, he gracefully walks through changes, enforces the groove, and sensibly interacts with Larry Goldings’ organ playing.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Jimmy Johnson? Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!