Abercrombie/Johnson/Erskine: s/t (ECM 1390)


John Abercrombie
Marc Johnson
Peter Erskine

John Abercrombie guitar, guitar synthesizer
Marc Johnson bass
Peter Erskine drums
Recorded April 21, 1988 live at the Nightstage, Boston
Engineer: Tony Romano
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After the resounding success of their two studio albums, Current Events and Getting There (with Michael Brecker), guitarist John Abercrombie teamed up with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Peter Erskine for this wondrous live 1988 recording from the Nightstage in Boston. It’s crystal clear from the groove laid down by Johnson and Erskine in the opener, “Furs On Ice” (think Getting There), that each of these men travels the edges of a constantly shifting yet with-it triangle. Abercrombie spins some Frisell-like chording before emerging with a soaring synclavier line in this, one of two Johnson-penned tunes, the other being a trimmed-down version of his “Samurai Hee-Haw” (see Bass Desires). Replacing Bill Frisell and John Scofield is no small order, yet Abercrombie fills these shoes with plenty of funk to spare. That unmistakable bass line, in fact, courts some of the most electrifying improv heard in a while from Abercrombie, who brings a Hammond organist’s sensibility to the proceedings via his fiery macramé. Erskine is also fantastic here. Abercrombie turns up the heat even more on his own two contributions. “Light Beam” is a particularly well-suited vehicle for synth guitar, and indeed seems focused like a laser splashed through the prism of his rhythm section. This is followed by a drum solo from Erskine, who shows us a nifty thing or two from his skill set, particularly in his dialoguing between bass drum and toms, before Abercrombie’s classic “Four On One” (from his seminal 1984 joint, Night) plies its musings and rounded edges with the record’s crunchiest playing. The three continue to converse beautifully in their group improv piece, “Innerplay.” Notable for Johnson’s delightful string games, it is a lasting testament to the powers of spontaneity.

The rest of the set is filled to bursting with a hefty portion of standards. Between Erskine’s delicate rat-a-tat timekeeping in “Stella By Starlight” and the delicacies of “Alice In Wonderland” (into which the rhythm section eases so carefully one feels more than hears it), there is much to stimulate repeated listening. Yet it is in “Beautiful Love” that we find the pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. From the gentlest guitar solo Abercrombie spins a song even as he unravels it into a water-skating journey so gorgeous it almost weeps. The trio’s finest moment and easily one of Abercrombie’s most inspired (and inspiring) improvisatory passages on record. The final “Haunted Heart” almost reaches those same depths, smoothing out an extended guitar intro into a velvety soft ballad that stirs us into a pool of melting chocolate and lets us steep.

A sublime recording from musicians at the top of their game, for a game this most certainly is, played by those who know the rules as well as anyone.

<< Terje Rypdal: Undisonus (ECM 1389)
>> Thomas Demenga: Bach/Carter (ECM 1391 NS)

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