John Abercrombie Quartet: Within A Song (ECM 2254)

Within A Song

John Abercrombie Quartet
Within A Song

John Abercrombie guitar
Joe Lovano tenor saxophone
Drew Gress double-bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded September 2011 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Bob Mallory
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Within A Song is more than a pretty title. It’s the credo of a musician whose path has taken him far from home in one of the most uncompromising journeys in modern jazz. And yet, guitarist John Abercrombie has never forgotten his roots. This album represents a return to them—a smooth, slow-motion plunge into a collection of songs that defined his search for a voice in the 1960s.

The product of this retrospection is a session that abandons surface-level concerns of virtuosity and velocity for reverence and reference. In the latter vein the set list is a goldmine of canonical repertoire, beginning with a nod to Sonny Rollins. As well as setting a relaxed tone that never dies, “Where Are You” turns the kaleidoscope of Abercrombie’s self-named quartet. Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Joey Baron are no strangers to either the set list or to each other, and their simpatico vibe magnifies the humility of their leader’s expressiveness. With a non-oppressive sultriness honed over decades on the jazz club stage, these veterans play with their eyes closed and ears open. Abercrombie pays further homage to Rollins in the slightly ratcheted-up title track, for which Lovano, slick and confident, cracks open a vintage of chromatic champagne. Two Abercrombie originals, unusually few in proportion to the covers, reveal the cosmic side of his picking. Baron’s cymbalism keeps things delicately grounded in “Easy Reader,” in which Lovano opts for an earthier mapping, while the upbeat “Nick Of Time” illuminates prisms across the band.

But the album’s heart lies in the greats. Miles Davis’s “Flamenco Sketches” gets a unique facelift. More ebb than flow, its canopy shines with dots of tenor light. Indeed, as the music progresses, it’s clear that Lovano is the star here. Whether by his measurement of afterglow in a teetering rendition of Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation” or the meditative springboard he builds for Abercrombie’s uplifting “Wise One” (John Coltrane), to say little of the “Interplay” (Bill Evans) that brings it all together, his ability to make song of space has rarely been so nude. Like the harmonies he shares with guitar in wizened take on Sergio Mihanovich’s “Sometime Ago,” he understands and demonstrates the value of listening before speaking.

All in all, Within A Song is a cogent enough affair. Foregoing the acrobatics of which the young may be so enamored, it’s assured enough in what it has to say to say it without ego. Rather than stand around politely in the waiting rooms of its legendary honorees, it slides tunes under the cracks of their doorways in hopes that somewhere they will be heard. Buy it for Abercrombie, but stay for his friends, and especially for Lovano’s charcoal beauties. And if you want something more nimble, you need only take 39 Steps to find it.

(To hear samples of Within A Song, click here.)

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