His ECM albums may be more overtly modern and left-of-center but, based on a 2004 AAJ interview, when John Abercrombie is at home practicing, it's usually in the context of jazz standards. For those who feel such well-trodden material has little left to offer in the way of either challenge or modern interpretation, the guitarist's duet with Joe Beck, Coincidence, will go a long way to encouraging naysayers to reconsider.
Like Abercrombie, Beck is a guitarist with a sizable discography as a sideman. His discography as a leader is smaller, however, and hasn't received the same attention as Abercrombie's 35-year association with ECM. But what the public doesn't know is the public's loss, as this program of standards and originals makes clear that these two guitarists are ideally matched. This pairing doesn't have the same eclecticism as Abercrombie's duet albums with Ralph Towner, but there's the same deep level of communication, with both players' ears wide open. There's also no mistaking Abercrombie's generally softer attack and Beck's slightly sharper, more often effected sound, but Abercrombie can be heard in the left channel, while Beck is in the right.
Traditionalists will be happy to hear an ambling version of "Beautiful Love" open the set, but it's a signal of things to come that the theme doesn't appear until both guitarists have taken solos and the tune is winding down. Nine of the twelve tunes may be standards, but the duo's approach is not always what one might expect. There may be no rhythm section, but with a 4/4 reinvention of Miles Davis' classic "All Blues" featuring Beck's funky rhythm playing behind Abercrombie's overdriven solo, one can almost feel the backbeat. Beck's bluesy "Mikey Likes It" might be screaming out for a shuffle, but it's to both guitarists' credit that, while their arrangements could be done with full group, they don't need to be; between them, Beck and Abercrombie provide all the rhythm, harmony, color and melody required.
Abercrombie's impressionistic, rubato ballad "Vingt-six," first heard on The Third Quartet (ECM, 2007) takes more liberties with time. That the two guitarists feel so in touch with its inherent elasticity speaks volumes on a tune that's closer in aesthetic to the Abercrombie/Towner discs, though Beck's more percussive and cascading solo approach is a clear differentiator. Abercrombie's "Just a Waltz," from his duet DVD with pianist Andy LaVerne, The Art of the Duo (Mel Bay, 2006), is more straightforwardat least, at first. Where it ultimately leads is further proof that it's possible to combine the traditional with the modern, as both guitarists apply a more sophisticated harmonic approach and a lyricism that's undeniable but far from predictable.
While guitar duos aren't uncommon, the empathic interplay and nothing-to-prove selflessness of Coincidence is a strong addition to that tradition. Reverential of things past, it makes no bones about being firmly rooted in the present, with an unmistakable eye on the future.
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Personnel: Joe Beck: guitar; John Abercrombie: guitar.