John Abercrombie: The Third Quartet (ECM 1993)

The Third Quartet

John Abercrombie
The Third Quartet

John Abercrombie guitar
Mark Feldman violin
Marc Johnson double-bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded June 2006 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Congress of John Abercrombie, violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Marc Johnson, and drummer Joey Baron is back in session with The Third Quartet. Like its predecessors, this junior outing is a master class in atmosphere and navigation—only now, Abercrombie points his compass toward a decidedly nostalgic north. While much of that retrospective feeling is already encoded into the guitarist’s Jim Hall influences, his toolkit now rattles with screwdrivers marked Ornette and Evans. The former is a crosshead, fitting snugly into “Round Trip” by way of the rhythm section’s deft interplay. The latter is a flathead, and in the somber “Epilogue” finds its groove in a looser sort of lyricism. The rest of the set list comes from Abercrombie’s pen, which gives pliant skeletons for his band mates’ fleshings-out.

Opener “Banshee” combines the free and the composed. From nebulous beginnings, a quivering violin treads intermittent guitar buzz until the two unify in one thematic vessel, crossing currents onto the shore of “Number 9.” With the slack-jawed lyricism of a Bill Frisell tune, its love potion courses faithfully through the veins. And as Feldman gallivants through winter trees with the fire of moonlight, it’s clear that he is once again the celestial force of the band. His watery—though never watered down—tone conforms to every shape even as it defines new ones. Whether flowing through the duo intro of “Vingt Six,” in which he shares windswept dialogue with Abercrombie before the rhythm section appears, intimate and reassuring, or moving with feline flexion in “Wishing Bell,” he guides us downriver into another season with every sweep of his bow. He can be as loose (as in the intensifying “Bred”) as he can be frenetic (“Elvin,” which pays tribute to Coltrane drummer Jones), but is always attentive to the infrastructure through which he percolates.

Not to be out-nuanced, Johnson holds his own as a master of description. His solos tend toward the compact, although their implications are anything but, for even when they guide us back to the head, improvisational echoes remain. He matches Abercrombie’s rainbow arcs with trails of footprints below, and gilds the progressive swing of “Tres” with charm. Lest we forget the leader’s impact, however, Abercrombie ends with “Fine,” an overdubbed duet of steel-string acoustics that regresses to his duo albums with Ralph Towner. It is a backward glance turned inward, an elegy for someone not long passed.

The Third Quartet chambers a tender heart, delicate as a morning glory yet just as sure to bloom with the coming of dawn. Such certainty is hard to come by in a sound-world built on spontaneity, but here it is.

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