John Abercrombie Quartet: 39 Steps (ECM 2334)

39 Steps

John Abercrombie Quartet
39 Steps

John Abercrombie guitar
Marc Copland piano
Drew Gress double bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded April 2013 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Bob Mallory
Produced by Manfred Eicher

If ever there was, as this album’s sole free improvisation would phrase it, a “Shadow Of A Doubt” of John Abercrombie’s prowess, then here is fiercely understated confirmation of his staying power. Despite sitting atop a career spanning decades, the guitarist sounds as youthful and buoyant as ever, yet with a reflective edge that comes only with experience. Such is the lyrical dichotomy of 39 Steps, and all of it served by world-class engineering that gives the instruments their respective spaces but joins them through shared breath.

With bassist Drew Gress, drummer Joey Baron, and pianist Marc Copland (making his ECM debut) along for the ride, Abercrombie takes the listener on a road trip as fresh as it is nostalgic. In the latter vein are the eye-squintingly melodic “Bacharach,” the slice of chromatic brilliance called “Another Ralph’s” (a follow-up to Abercrombie’s classic tune “Ralph’s Piano Waltz”), and “As It Stands,” which feels like a cigarette burning down to the filter, the two chordists taking turns exhaling the smoke. The leader’s pen yields three more tunes. “Vertigo” is the first of a handful of Alfred Hitchcock references and opens the session with a laid-back vibe that is, given its title, surprisingly congruous (a four-dimensional take on the standard “Melancholy Baby” at the tail end feels far more off kilter). Copland eases the rest of band into focus here with an elegant intro and further contributes the album’s first noteworthy solo. Two remaining Abercrombie originals showcase the composer at his evocative best. “Greenstreet” feels like ice-skating across a winter wonderland even as it thaws in the sparkle of Baron’s cymbals, while Gress’s bass ladders adroitly, every bit as limber as the rest. The slack-jawed title track, for its part, simplifies things by opening single note before expanding into a fragrant rose. Abercrombie takes great care to strip that rose of its thorns until it can be safely handled.

Copland’s two offerings map the quartet’s brightest courses, stretching highway through the joyous “LST” and setting up the tensile atmosphere of “Spellbound” with assurance. The first tune boasts simpatico timekeeping from the rhythm section, giving Abercrombie more than enough court to lob his soaring improvisations, and in second, though more relaxed, making way for some of his most forthright playing in years.

Then again, Abercrombie has always favored tone over muscle, and here the fine tweaking of his experience pays off in spades. This is his finest album in recent memory and may just earn its place among your old favorites with repeated listens.

(To hear samples of 39 Steps, click here.)

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