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.

John Abercrombie: Cat ‘n’ Mouse (ECM 1770)

Cat n Mouse

John Abercrombie
Cat ‘n’ Mouse

John Abercrombie guitar
Mark Feldman violin
Joey Baron drums
Marc Johnson double-bass
Recorded December 2000 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Cat ‘n’ Mouse introduces a streamlined quartet from the ever-extraordinary John Abercrombie. The guitarist is again joined by violinist Mark Feldman, whose peerless fluidity worked wonders on Open Land. In fact, the Abercrombie-Feldman nexus was what set the current project in motion, manifesting that former album’s title with even greater intuition. Flanked by longtime ally Marc Johnson on bass and drummer Joey Baron, the stage is set for a smooth ride through Abercrombie’s rich compositions and freer realization.

Baron’s brushes wax slickly in the waltzing “A Nice Idea.” A blush of cordial introductions reveals the shifting combinations that color the album as a whole. Abercrombie matches Johnson so well that the two seem like brothers from a different mother, while Feldman brings most light to this play of shadows, floating above Johnson’s protracted bounces. Not all is lilt and whisper, however, for “Convolution” speaks to the session’s driving spirit. Using small motifs as stepping-stones, the quartet deconstructs the many paths ahead. Lapses of unity quickly disperse and shed their skins in favor of rhizomatic denouements. Abercrombie ignites the night air, while Feldman rocks the unison motives with panache. “String Thing” is another emblematic tune, bearing traces of producer Manfred Eicher’s suggestions to play without vibrato—that is, in a more “baroque” mode. The end effect is magical. Feldman and Johnson breathe in alluring simpatico, while Abercrombie’s steel-stringed acoustic brings a warm underglow to the ice. “Soundtrack” evokes moving words rather than moving pictures. Johnson’s pulsing solo and Feldman’s emotional edge say it all: life is romance. “On The Loose” is a diptych, annexing blues with a classic quick draw. The rhythm section here lights a bonfire, Feldman more than up for the swing. Noteworthy is Abercrombie’s pianistic roll in the tune. “Stop and Go” casts a Jerry Hahn vibe into the country and draws influence also from Feldman’s own six-year tenure in Nashville. Its jocular grammar evokes Bill Frisell, even if Abercrombie’s inflections speak their own language. Feldman is all over this one like blue on sky, opening to an explosive monologue at the center and sharing crackling follow-ups with Baron. A real knockout.

Cat ‘n’ Mouse includes two entirely improvised pieces. “Third Stream Samba” harks to the Third Stream music of Gunther Schuller and, despite its title, is as far from Brazil as the sun. Its underlying rhythms are nonetheless engaging, spinning a world of diffusions from razor-thin bowing. Feldman is in his element in these open settings, dancing as much as crawling through the music’s evolving architecture. Neither is Baron afraid to whip up the dust here and there, as in “Show Of Hands.” The album’s closer takes its title from the drummer, who abandons his sticks in the final stretch and goes skin to skin. From the violin’s higher register it stretches a thin atmosphere, sounding like an ancient automaton creaking back to life. As the horizon whips its tail back toward the observer, Abercrombie flicks his lighter into the combustible air until all available oxygen spends itself.

John Abercrombie: Open Land (ECM 1683)

Open Land

John Abercrombie
Open Land

John Abercrombie guitar
Mark Feldman violin
Kenny Wheeler trumpet, flugelhorn
Joe Lovano tenor saxophone
Dan Wall organ
Adam Nussbaum drums
Recorded September 1998 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After a string of intriguing albums for ECM, John Abercrombie’s organ trio welcomes violinist Mark Feldman, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and tenor man Joe Lovano into the fold for Open Land, a leader-penned session of unusual sound colors and depth. Like all great albums, it reveals more with each listen, so that its augmentations grow more inextricably fused as the music becomes more familiar. From the first lilt of Wheeler’s brass in “Just In Tune,” it’s clear that the increased number of musicians hones the band’s spirit at a microscopic level. To be sure, the rising tide spun by Nussbaum and Wall paints smooth expanse across which Abercrombie stretches his webs—a magic formula that served well in While We’re Young, Speak Of The Devil, and Tactics. By the same token, here the mirage falls inward, catching the phosphorescence of every solo in a jar of fireflies. Even in tracks like the far-reaching “Speak Easy,” Abercrombie builds a tower to the sun but unlike Icarus stops short and looks down at the world for a while, quietly musing to itself before regressing into its core. The lush grooves are still there (“Gimme Five”), as are the featurettes (“Little Booker” and “That’s For Sure”), and the horns coalesce beautifully in tracks like “Remember When.”

Yet it is Feldman whose presence pays highest dividends. A heartfelt take on Felix Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” gives life to the violinist’s quivering mastication, which breathes anew in the crystalline acoustics of Avatar Studios. This track stands out also for the method of its soloing, which finds each musician echoing another in a perfect circle. Wall is particularly effervescent, bouncing from Abercrombie’s chording like a paddle ball. Feldman sandwiches a crunchy guitar center, sharing bursting thematic lines with downright mitochondrial energy. “Free Piece Suit(e)” is, however, the most fascinating little puzzle of this date and thus finds Feldman in his element, jumping from ecstatic cries to chromatic undertows in the blink of a bow. Nestled in Abercrombie’s network of nerves, he sings a life neurotic as if it were poetry to be savored.

John Abercrombie Trio: Tactics (ECM 1623)

John Abercrombie Trio
Tactics

John Abercrombie guitar
Dan Wall Hammond B3
Adam Nussbaum drums
Recorded live at Visiones, New York, July 13-15, 1996
Engineers: David Baker and Bob Ward
An ECM Production

Third time’s a charm for the John Abercrombie Trio, which plants its eponymous guitarist along with Hammondist Dan Wall and drummer Adam Nussbaum in live soil at last. The change of setting does wonders for an already deep and exploratory group, the difference immediate in the shadowy fade-in of “Sweet Sixteen,” which introduces the instruments in a stepwise procession of agents. As Wall rolls his gentle grit across the plains of his solo, we are reminded of the organ’s rich history in jazz, and of the lineage (Larry Young, Jan Hammer, etc.) he draws from in, and transcends by virtue of, his playing. On this date, it’s his programmatic touches that cut deepest. His heat-distorted circles of talk in “Last Waltz,” for example, turn an already slow and arid tune to a state of conduction for Abercrombie and Nussbaum’s exchanges. So begins the album with two of three Abercrombie originals, the last being “Dear Rain,” which also stands as an exposition of the organ’s tender side, plush yet understated. Wall hits on two tunes of his own. “Bo Diddy” is a hip excursion into hard bop details. Nussbaum rocks the boat but keeps it afloat, supporting some of Abercrombie’s fieriest playing in a long while. A tight ground line from Wall indicates a bassist’s approach. This energizing run leaves us primed for something smooth and smoky. This we get in “You And The Night and The Music.” In this timeless standard, Abercrombie locks himself into what I like to call a “smoove groove.” Next is Nussbaum’s “Chumbida.” It is a slow-moving train that dreams of its celeritous youth, only to awaken to it in reality. It accomplishes this through no small feat of development before blending into Wall’s #2, “Mr. Magoo,” which winds the album’s tightest knots from all three, finally petering out into “Long Ago (And Far Away),” a laid-back groove that finds Wall and Abercrombie finishing buoyantly and warmly.

What’s special about this trio is that, even at its most enthralling moments, there is always tenderness to spare. Tactics may seem a curious title, especially when we think of it in the militaristic sense, but in the linguistic sense—i.e., patterns which combine to form larger constructions—it holds true. Abercrombie, Wall, and Nussbaum have done precisely that: taken patterns of the art to which they dedicate their lives and spun them into narratives with lives of their own.

John Abercrombie Trio: Speak Of The Devil (ECM 1511)

John Abercrombie Trio
Speak Of The Devil

John Abercrombie guitars
Dan Wall hammond B3 organ
Adam Nussbaum drums
Recorded July 1993 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Following up on 1992’s While We’re Young, guitarist John Abercrombie and his trio with Hammondist Dan Wall and drummer Adam Nussbaum returned one year later with Speak Of The Devil. A much looser date than its predecessor, it showcases three talents shunning restriction for want of a freer flow. As before, Wall defines the soundscape, drawing a sturdy mesh with the charcoal of his still-glowing coals. Sounding like some long lost voice given life in the creature comforts of the studio, his solos arc like rainbows into improvisatory gold. The heat distortion of that organ in the two opening tracks sets the mood against distant considerations found in strings and skins. Abercrombie’s smooth tractions grow magical, reaching high licks in “Mahat” against soft yet propulsive drumming, and later in “BT-U,” for which his octane triples in grade as Wall hands the reigns to Nussbaum, who gets his moment to dance on the pyre. Despite these virtuosic flourishes, it’s the group’s tender side that reveals most face. Between the rugged jewel that is  “Chorale” and the glittering susurrations from Nussbaum in “Farewell,” we can almost feel the sunlight through the trees, carving shadows at our feet before Abercrombie waxes nostalgic in “Early To Bed” and lures us into the monochrome fantasy of “Dreamland.” Ironically, “Hell’s Gate” is the coolest track on the album, with a smoothness of execution that makes the journey more than worthwhile, capping off a dynamic sophomore effort.

<< Giya Kancheli: Abii ne Viderem (ECM 1510 NS)
>> William Byrd: Motets and Mass for four voices (ECM 1512 NS)

John Abercrombie: November (ECM 1502)

John Abercrombie
November

John Abercrombie guitar
Marc Johnson bass
Peter Erskine drums
John Surman baritone and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet
Recorded November 1992 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Named for both the month its was recorded in and for the mood it maintains, November is a cogent record from guitarist John Abercrombie’s trio with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Peter Erskine, along with special guest John Surman. The English reedman lends his fluid considerations to the album’s deepest moments, and nowhere so engagingly as in “The Cat’s Back,” thus opening a cloudy and sometimes pensive set of mostly group originals. Abercrombie’s quiet sparkle ushers in the gravid quartet sound of this improvised prelude, Surman tipping the scales with bass clarinet against the weight of Erskine and Johnson’s joyous communication. Those timeworn ululations scramble themselves in “Rise And Fall,” a veritable Rubik’s Cube of baritone utterances. The legato soprano of “Ogeda” also inspires particularly soulful picking from Abercrombie, who pulls from the gumdrop strums of “Come Rain Or Come Shine” and “Prelude” a scroll of ideas. These come to life inside rings of celestial fire, each a meteorite in freefall. Meditation throbs at the heart of “J.S.,” a lavish piece boasting starry turns all around. After this look inward, we get something more extroverted in the foot-tapping beats of “Right Brain Patrol.” Despite small beginnings, it ends up spitting pale fire as if it were breath itself into “John’s Waltz.” Over Erskine’s calm ripples, Abercrombie grabs the tail of Johnson’s solo for one of his own, deploying a parachute held by chromatic tethers. “To Be” reprises Surman’s bass clarinet, played here as if it were the last of its kind. Its voice paints the night with that gentle resignation only loneliness can bring, a heartening and mournful sound that recedes from “Big Music,” which finishes the album with ice-skating melodies and tight syncopations.

While everyone on November listens to the others with equal acuity, I find this outing all the more enjoyable for what Johnson does to its sound. After having only encountered him in denser projects like Bass Desires, it was a real pleasure to hear—in the title track, for example—the intimacy of his craft. His duet with Erskine on “Tuesday Afternoon” is a real gem in this regard and provides a guiding lens for this exquisite studio date.

<< Bach: 3 Sonaten für Viola da Gamba und Cembalo (ECM 1501 NS)
>> Ketil Bjørnstad: Water Stories (ECM 1503)

John Abercrombie Trio: While We’re Young (ECM 1489)

John Abercrombie Trio
While We’re Young

John Abercrombie guitars
Dan Wall Hammond organ
Adam Nussbaum drums
Recorded June 1992 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

John Abercrombie fronts the first of his trio recordings with Dan Wall on Hammond organ and Adam Nussbaum on drums. This sumptuous combination of instruments, cradled in ECM’s enabling acoustics no less, is candy for the ears. Dividing the record into two halves, one finds the first bubbling with excitement. One might not know it from the all-consuming gaze of “Rain Forest,” in which Wall takes center stage. Bathed in a rough and dimly lit spotlight, he listens to his own stories as if someone else was telling them, but gives way to the swell of “Stormz.” Abercrombie takes slow but steady shape, ringing like the edge of a coin blown and held to the edge of an ear, now tumbling, now sprinting, with an eye ever-trained to some distant point that holds his attention by a thread of perspective from pick to horizon. In “Dear Rain,” Nussbaum’s drumming indeed evokes the patter of precipitation as Wall’s tender strains waft through the humid air. All of this seems but fuel to “Mirrors,” which turns up the flames on this gas stove to a deep and lively blue. Fantastic playing abounds on this one, but particularly from Nussbaum, who keeps us on our toes.

“Carol’s Carol” links a chain of memories toward the album’s darker side. Erskine’s cymbals form the peak of some mountainous drumming, sending us over into the neighboring valley of “Scomotion.” This down-tempo tribute to John Scofield tones the remainder down to a quiet smolder. Abercrombie finds sentimental breadth in “A Matter Of Time,” kindling to Wall’s probing sparks, while “Dolorosa” ends on a tearful note, made all the more so by the guitar’s lovely sound, setting us down from a beautiful and reflective effort before going on its silent way.

<< Bley/Peacock/Oxley/Surman: In The Evenings Out There (ECM 1488)
>> Gary Peacock/Ralph Towner: Oracle (ECM 1490)

John Abercrombie: Animato (ECM 1411)

John Abercrombie
Animato

John Abercrombie guitar, guitar synthesizer
Jon Christensen drums, percussion
Vince Mendoza synthesizers
Recorded October 1989 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Despite the fact of John Abercrombie headlining this curious little album called Animato, the finished product is a real showcase for drummer Jon Christensen and synthesizer virtuoso Vince Mendoza. The latter, who wrote the bulk of the album’s music (the only exceptions being the group improv that begins the set and the Jon Hassell-esque strains of Abercrombie’s “Bright Reign”), fleshes out some of the strokes Abercrombie was already beginning to paint with his synth augmentations in years past. Still, the guitarist is a major melodic force on this date. Where “Right Now” rises from the depths with the torch in his hands, swirling around a fiery center, self-contained yet extroverted, “Single Moon” floats his tenderness over a bass of electronic goodness. Like a skilled R&B singer, he plumbs the ballad to new depths, each new stratum accentuated by the warmth and timeless energy of Mendoza’s tasteful atmospheres. In this vein, the sequencer qualities of “Agitato” make for a bed of ashes from which the guitar rises like a phoenix and duets with drums in powerful conversation amid gorgeous synth lines and a classically inflected refrain. After the swelling interlude of “First Light” we come into the bubbling abstractions of “Last Light,” in which Abercrombie dances like fire on water. The darkly anthemic “For Hope Of Hope” is an audible mirage throughout which Christensen proves a fantastic painter of colors, even as Mendoza deepens them in a continuous pall of time and narrative experience. We end with a lullaby in “Ollie Mention.” This is perhaps Abercrombie at his most sensitive yet somehow spirited as he tumbles over comforting waves into the final recession of the tide.

The inclusion of Mendoza on this album was a stroke of genius. On the one hand he is an extension of what Abercrombie already implies, while on the other he emotes with such distinctness that one feels the session pushed to new territories with every touch. Together these musicians bring a storyteller’s art to wordless songs, hollowing a vein of shadow through which the blood of dreams runs bright.

<< Dave Holland Quartet: Extensions (ECM 1410)
>> Walter Fähndrich: Viola (ECM 1412 NS)