John Abercrombie: Class Trip (ECM 1846)

Class Trip

John Abercrombie
Class Trip

John Abercrombie guitar
Mark Feldman violin
Marc Johnson double-bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded February 2003 at Avatar Studio, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Aya Takemura
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Guitarist John Abercrombie’s journey through ECM space has brought him into orbit with a range of phenomenal satellites. Yet no solar system has been so enduring in effect as the quartet documented here. Since Cat ‘n’ Mouse, it has grown, as the title of that label debut would imply, in leaps and bounds. Nearly all of the music is by Abercrombie, the only exceptions being “Solider’s Song” by Béla Bartók (performed here in a lovely trio arrangement, sans bass, and taken from the composer’s 44 Duos) and the freely improvised “Illinoise” and “Epilogue.”

As ever, Feldman’s peerless art is a pleasure to hear among present company. His harmonic skills thread “Dansir” with a grammar all their own, matching Abercrombie’s snaking themes arc for arc. Moments of collusion with Baron also abound in the silken drama of this album opener. Abercrombie and Johnson are like creatures from the deep, bringing songs of the seafloor with them. As in all that follows, there is something almost secretive about the goings on, as if somewhere behind the ebony veneer an even deeper shade of heart is at work. Johnson’s early solo in “Risky Business” is the epitome of commentary in this regard.

From reverie to reverie the program travels, sporting in the brisker “Descending Grace” and becoming even livelier in “Swirls.” But the lion’s share sits at the paws of a slumbering beast, each tune airier than the last. At the navigator’s helm, Abercrombie brings requisite cartography—and all the sense of measurement and precision the metaphor implies—to his playing. He is the icing to the cake beneath, the median temperature between Feldman’s cool and Johnson’s warmth (cf. “Excuse My Shoes” or “Jack and Betty”). In the title track, anchored by a delightful pizzicato combo, he jumps deck into full dive and resurfaces with a handful of gold stamped FELDMAN. Like a skilled, unpretentious filmmaker, the violinist captures movement at the moment of its creation and tests its fate in the light. Another easy notable is “Cat Walk.” One of a handful of feline-themed tunes in the ECM catalogue, it is yet another showcase for Feldman, who stalks the galleys with eyes aglow. Abercrombie, too, is sprightly and agile with his soft pads. But it’s Johnson who comes up with the most evocative solo of them all.

Careful but never cautious, Class Trip is a dream come true for a group that is, thankfully, very much a reality.

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