John Abercrombie Quartet: Up and Coming (ECM 2528)

Up and Coming

John Abercrombie Quartet
Up and Coming

John Abercrombie guitar
Marc Copland piano
Drew Gress double bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded April/May 2016 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistants: Thom Beemer and Nate Odden
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 13, 2017

The quartet of guitarist John Abercrombie, pianist Marc Copland, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Joey Baron, last featured on 2013’s 39 Steps, returns for the final ECM album to be released before the bandleader’s death. As if we ever needed a reminder of why his art was more than its own musical country but a continent unto itself, this gorgeous swan song fulfills that duty and then some.

Each facet of Up and Coming pays tribute to Abercrombie’s meteoric development as a musician, and by the brushwork of his bandmates renders a group portrait quite unlike any other in the business. On “Joy,” we’re introduced to their symbiosis in spades. As wind currents of guitar and piano flow over each another, they trace a cymbal-kissed shore and its trail of bass footprints. If joy abounds here in name, so does it also in spirit on “Flipside,” of which an understated brilliance showcases the quartet at its straightforward best.

If “Sunday School” is a lesson in grace and doctrinal congruity, wherein Abercrombie shines with a quiet light and sparks a particularly introspective solo from Gress, the title track is a more secular campaign led by the guitarist’s liquid-mercury call to arms. In likeminded spirit, Copland contributes two tunes written for this session. Where “Tears” rows a classically inflected river that finds Abercrombie and Gress wielding the most delicate of improvisational oars, “Silver Circle” elicits a funk-infused passion.

Channeling Bill Evans in their rendition of the Miles Davis standard “Nardis,” the band begins without rhythm, floating in reverie before landing into sunlit fields. And there we find Abercrombie cartwheeling away in “Jumbles.” Here, as until now, Baron’s splashing cymbals are the leitmotif of a palpable scene.

It goes without saying that this album’s title is most ironic, given that such playing can only be forged by those who’ve been around the block more than a few times. From beat one to none, Up and Coming is a fitting end to an unparalleled legacy—one, I sincerely hope, of more in the wings of ECM’s archives.

JAQ
(Photo credit: Bart Babinski)

Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie (ECM 5053)

Open Land

Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie

A film by Arno Oehri & Oliver Primus
A Music Heritage Production
Release date: June 15, 2018

Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie is a curious film. On the one hand, it’s the only documentary on the late guitarist, and for that reason alone has value. On the other, it’s such a cursory treatment of an immense talent that I would hesitate to recommend it except to the most die-hard fans.

As the delicate strains of “Sad Song” waft through a nocturnal New York City montage, we’re promised an intimate look at an intimate artist—one whose discography on ECM and beyond reads like a film unto itself. And in this regard the directors tick the usual boxes when it comes to a standard biographical portrait. We learn of Abercrombie’s earliest inspirations, listening as a boy to the likes of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard and feeling a fuse ignited within by the electric guitar. After convincing his parents to buy him one, he finds himself smitten by its possibilities. “This was my salvation,” he says of the instrument as a divining rod for discovering his path.

03

He tells us of his parents, who, despite their hesitations, let him study at Berklee College of Music—a rather unusual gesture for the times, as jazz was still an “underground” music. He lived in Boston for eight years, studying for half of them, started gigging, and began attending jazz concerts on a regular basis. His growing reputation earned him walk-in rights to The Jazz Workshop, a prestigious club where all the greats played just feet in front of him. “I thought the mothership had just landed from space,” he says of hearing John Coltrane live for the first time. He still had a lot to learn.

02

No such documentary would be complete without contributions from those who knew him best. We meet his wife Lisa, who speaks of her husband’s unerring love, as expressed in a willingness to put his music on hold while she finished her schooling in California, and in his acceptance of people as they were. “The deepest part of him is music,” she says, yet in the same breath acknowledges his ability to make everyone feel just as vital to living.

04

Drummer Adam Nussbaum and keyboardist Gary Versace share their own fond memories of going on the road with Abercrombie. They remember his humor, his practical nature, and the trust he placed in his fellow musicians. Thus, we come to something of a double meaning in the film’s title: his openness was not only musical but also interpersonal. As if to prove that statement, we encounter some wondrous footage of Abercrombie, Nussbaum, and Versace playing “Another Ralph’s” at Jazztage 2014 in Eschen, Liechtenstein. Through 12 minutes of delicate fire, the trio works its magic with ease.

05

All of which points to the film’s greatest weakness, which should have been its strength: namely, the music itself. Throughout we hear selections from Wait Till You See Her (2009), Within A Song (2012), The Third Quartet (2007), 39 Steps (2013), Class Trip (2004), Current Events (1986), and Timeless (1975). The first thing to notice is that, among this latter-day selection, we don’t hear any music from a 20th-century recording until an hour into the film. Anyone being introduced to Abercrombie’s music through this documentary alone might therefore mistake him for a laid-back picker, as there’s no attempt whatsoever to flesh out his variety, as expressed in such albums as Night (1984), Getting There (1988), and Animato (1989), to say little of the dynamism of Timeless itself. Neither is there discussion of his non-ECM recordings, including his groundbreaking work with Stark Reality and Billy Cobham, in the early 1970s.

06

Many of these musical selections share a feeling of melancholy, a characterization that fittingly describes his most personal writing and a quality that brought him and ECM producer Manfred Eicher together in the first place. But this is half of his personality at best, by no means the only lens through which to scrutinize his art. A related misstep, for example, concerns his first studio appearance on Barry Miles’s Scatbird (1972), which Abercrombie talks about at some length twice in the documentary. And yet, we don’t hear a lick of it.

07

We are, however, treated to Abercrombie’s recollections of making Timeless, a record that came about through Eicher’s persistence alone. Under the influence of Indian fusion (by way of John McLaughlin) in vogue at the time, he created a melody over an E-major drone, showed it to keyboardist Jan Hammer and drummer Jack DeJohnette, and the rest was history. We learn, too, that Manfred Eicher turned off all the lights in the control room while listening back to “Timeless,” which until then had no title. Abercrombie cites this as the moment his identity as a leader, composer, and performer gelled. Fascinating, to say the least.

Timeless

While the film has other issues—notably its hesitant editing and filler visuals that take up valuable real estate in time—these are tolerable in light of the fact that so little music is offered. Witnessing Abercrombie at home on the piano, for example, is unabashedly beautiful, but gone too soon.

01

Open Land is ultimately one of those situations where our love for the subject outweighs our criticism of presentation. But as someone who simply plays what he likes, working with two parts intuition for every part intention, Abercrombie isn’t all that dynamic when it comes to describing his music or process. All of which makes for a lovely piece of apocrypha, to be sure, but far from the best introduction to the man’s life, art, and musical significance. For that, look no further than The First Quartet and its in-depth liner notes by John Kelman, whose laser-focused passion for and knowledge of this music speak to the worth of experience not only for artists but also those who admire their creations.

John Abercrombie: The First Quartet (ECM 2478-80)

The First Quartet

John Abercrombie
The First Quartet

Release date: November 6, 2015

The three albums reissued for this Old & New Masters set were the missing pieces in John Abercrombie’s discographic puzzle for ECM. Released less than two years before his death in 2017, the present collection comprises a vital document not with regard to its bandleader but also the label he would call his primary home after the release of Timeless in 1975. As Abercrombie recalls in John Kelman’s superb liner notes, “[T]hat was my first real break; it helped me find my own way, because I was basically a John McLaughlin rip-off at the time.” Whether we agree with the latter self-assessment, the album was a watershed moment of jazz history in which Abercrombie and producer Manfred Eicher collaborated on a lasting statement.

Abercrombie, Kelman goes on, fell in with bassist George Mraz and drummer Peter Donald while studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston (where he was roommates with Mraz and keyboardist Jan Hammer). After moving to New York, he squared the circle upon meeting pianist Richie Beirach. While building his profile as both musician and composer, Eicher gifted him with a Revox reel-to-reel tape recorder, which along with the piano would become his primary compositional tool for years to come. It was around that time that the quartet featured here came together in the studio under Eicher’s watch. As Kelman notes of their first session, “Arcade doesn’t sound like a nascent group still finding its way.” Indeed, what we have here is music that comes to us as if midstream, matured and ready to be experienced without any other filter than the decades it took to reach us in digital form.

Arcade

Arcade (ECM 1133)

John Abercrombie guitar, electric mandolin
Richard Beirach piano
George Mraz bass
Peter Donald drums
Recorded December 1978 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Original release date: March 1, 1979

Toward the end of Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, a rainbow spreads its band across the ocean to warn General Katsuyori not to proceed into the Battle of Nagashino that lies ahead, lest he meet with certain doom. Tragically, he ignores it and rushes himself and his men into an all-out massacre. Such omens are rare outside of the cinematic imagination. And yet, here we find a similar image gracing the cover of Arcade, signaling to us a music that doesheed that omen and luxuriates in the sonic benefits of its deference to a higher power.

Kagemusha
Film still from Kagemusha (1980)

The title track, with its buoyant bass line courtesy of George Mraz (onetime member of the Oscar Peterson Quartet) and an effervescent Richard Beirach (rightful heir to the Tatum/Evans legacy) on piano, frames John Abercrombie’s adventurous fingers like gloves, making shadow puppets against the taut screen of Peter Donald’s drumming. This formula works from the get-go and provides plenty of magic from which the quartet spins one glorious melody after another. A splash of rain brings us to the “Nightlake” with downcast eyes as Abercrombie lays his rubato soloing over a liquid rhythm section. The results showcase the quartet at its best. “Paramour” is another stunner, working over the listener in waves. Mraz digs deep into his emotional reserves for this one. Meanwhile, things are a bit more cosmic on “Neptune,” where arco bass cuts a swath of moonlight in nebular darkness. Abercrombie launches tiny rockets into the stars with his electric mandolin, tracing new constellations on the way to becoming one himself. In closing, the group shows us what “Alchemy” is all about. From its lead filings arises a golden phoenix. Every appendage is an instrument animating the harmonious whole, tickled by Beirach’s ivory and gilded in a layer of cymbals. As its heart contracts, the guitar lets out a plaintive cry, running ever so delicately into the shadows of resolution.

Abercrombie’s pinpoint precision abounds, his mid-heavy picking amplified to buttery sweetness, and shares notable interplay with Beirach. Over a yielding backing, these sustained reverberations occasionally coalesce in bright tutti passages. The resulting sound is enchantment.

Abercrombie Quartet

Abercrombie Quartet (ECM 1164)

John Abercrombie guitar, mandolin guitar
Richard Beirach piano
George Mraz bass
Peter Donald drums
Recorded November 1979 at Talent Studio
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Original release date: 1980

One year after debuting with Arcade, the John Abercrombie Quartet cut out the auditory paper doll that is this curiously overlooked successor. What set the quartet apart from its contemporaries was not only the fluid playing of its frontman and the ways in which it intertwines with that of musicians who are beyond intuitive, but also the sense of development in the structuring and ordering of tunes. Beginning with the pianistic groove of “Blue Wolf” and ending on the acoustically minded “Foolish Dog,” this self-titled peregrination winds itself into a tour de force of solemn virtuosity. From Beirach’s overwhelming cascades to Mraz’s contortions, we encounter a virtual entity of unity whose heartbeat counts off to Donald’s drumming and whose eyes glow with Abercrombie’s characteristic pale fire. This body unfolds into a misty landscape, where the gusts of “Dear Rain” spread melodies into harmonic pastures. Looser gestures like “Stray” (here, both verb and noun) share appendages with the resignation of “Madagascar,” which falls like a sheet from a clothesline in an oncoming storm. As the quartet grows in, Abercrombie’s gentle remonstrations graze the bellies of clouds with the barest touch of curled fingers, allowing “Riddles” to build their conversational nests in the branches of an undisclosed longing.

No matter how “into it” these musicians get, they always display an admirable sense of control, so committed are they to the thematic altar around which they cast their spells. There is a sound that lingers on the palate, one that finds in its cessation the birth of something new.

M

(ECM 1191)

John Abercrombie electric and acoustic guitars
Richard Beirach piano
George Mraz bass
Peter Donald drums
Recorded November 1980 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Original release date: 1981

For its third ECM outing, the John Abercrombie Quartet produced this viscous and mysterious entity known simply as M. This seven-part exercise in burnished reflection plows its foggiest waters in “Boat Song.” Abercrombie’s guitar weeps like bells over a harbor, skimmed for flotsam by Beirach’s somber piano. At nearly ten minutes, this is the longest track of the album, and its darkness haunts all that proceeds from it. We encounter this also in “To Be” (a rubato wave notable for Mraz’s effortless bassing), and the harmonic inversions of “Veils.” Here, Abercrombie’s sinewy melodic lines stretch farthest, slowly immersing hands into the “Pebbles” in which we find closure. Donald’s drumming is particularly fine here and shines like sunrays from cloud-break.

Despite Abercrombie’s often-piercing swan dives and a pirouetting rhythm section, even the liveliest moments in “What Are The Rules” (a rhetorical move proving there need be none) or “Flashback” never lift their feet too high off the ground. The latter’s circular conversations draw around us a perimeter that we are free to overstep. Yet after being bathed in such sonic finery, we feel reluctant to do so. The result is one of Abercrombie’s lushest albums, with a somewhat obscure and tinny production style that writes a different story every time.

JAQ
(Photo credit: Rick Laird)

Taken as a trilogy, these albums are a time capsule of creative evolution into which the listener may step in, reading each tune like a cross-section of its own becoming in service of a whole that will only continue to grow as it ages now—remastered, revitalized, and released for all to share.

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.)

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.)

John Abercrombie Quartet: Wait Till You See Her (ECM 2102)

Wait Till You See Her

John Abercrombie Quartet
Wait Till You See Her

John Abercrombie guitar
Mark Feldman violin
Thomas Morgan double-bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded December 2008 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

John Abercrombie’s moody quartet gets a reboot on Wait Till You See Her, swapping out bassist Marc Johnson with a young Thomas Morgan (in his ECM debut) while retaining violinist Mark Feldman and drummer Joey Baron. Just as the previous outings were exercises in atmosphere, so this 2008 session is a paragon of subduedness, for even at its most swinging (checkpoint: “Anniversary Waltz”), Wait maintains a cautious fusion of reflection and fire. The results are in no way pedantic, but instead shine with robust physicality.

To offset the buff, “Sad Song” opens the album’s mostly Abercrombie-penned journey on a slow note. Whereas in the past, Abercrombie and Feldman took turns at the melodic helm, this time around the guitarist breathes more independently, freeing Feldman to converse with the band’s newest addition. Indeed, violin and bass diagram their conversations softly and with tact, skating across a surface burnished to ebony sheen by Baron’s brushing. Abercrombie proceeds non-invasively, a firefly writing its somber blues through an open shutter. Couched in the chamber aesthetics of “Line-Up,” for another, the Feldman-Morgan circuit fizzles with pizzicato sparks, but returns to a feeling of quietude like a baby to mother’s embrace.

Despite the looseness of the music, its focus finds epitome in Morgan’s bassing. Be it the laser precision of “Trio” (a tent on the album’s camping grounds that leaves no room for violin) or the dreamy tension of the Rodgers & Hart show tune from the album gets its title, Morgan keeps the spine activated while the rest of the body drifts in and out of consciousness. A notable drifting out takes place in “I’ve Overlooked Before,” which from coolly ambient beginnings draws mysteries in charcoal. Through these reefs Abercrombie moves aquatically, his strings the tendrils of a jellyfish, stretching and compressing to the pulse of the tides. Feldman, ever the dolphin, darts through the currents and lures some of Abercrombie’s most mellifluous playing from the coral. In both “Out Of Towner” and “Chic Of Araby,” the second of which closes shop, the feeling of connection among the quartet is especially intense. To a camel’s gait, Abercrombie snakes through Feldman’s direct hits like a sidewinder, leaving a trail of esses to show for his carriage. For our part, all we can do is follow, tracing our listening along that perfect path in admiration.

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.

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.