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John Abercrombie Quartet: 39 Steps

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John Abercrombie Quartet: John Abercrombie Quartet: 39 Steps How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.

John Abercrombie has rarely played with pianists, at least in his own groups and throughout his extensive discography as a leader for ECM Records that began with the immediate classic, 1975's Timeless. Other than a brief reunion with that record's group for 1984's Night, the veteran guitarist has, in fact, only recorded with one other piano-based group, the quartet responsible for Arcade (1979), Abercrombie Quartet (1980) and M (1981)—all featuring another intrepid improviser, Richie Beirach
Richie Beirach
Richie Beirach
b.1947
piano
, and slated for released in 2014 as an Old & New Masters Edition box that will finally see all three in print on CD (two for the first time). Meanwhile, 39 Steps is, then, Abercrombie's first recording as a leader with a pianist since Night, though it's far from a first encounter.

39 Steps may be pianist Marc Copland
Marc Copland
Marc Copland
b.1948
piano
's long overdue ECM debut—a post-Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
pianist whose attention to touch and space have long made him a worthy candidate for the label's pristine sonic approach—but this group, with the exception of drummer Joey Baron
Joey Baron
Joey Baron
b.1955
drums
, who replaces original drummer Billy Hart
Billy Hart
Billy Hart
b.1940
drums
, has been working together, on occasion, since Second Look (Savoy Jazz, 1996), reuniting in 2007 for Another Place (Pirouet, 2008). But if both dates featured Copland as ostensible leader, they were all rather egalitarian when it came to compositional contributions, split fairly evenly between the pianist and Abercrombie.

39 Steps represents a couple of significant differences, beyond Baron's recruitment. First, the lion's share of the compositions belong to Abercrombie, who rightfully assumes leader credit here, with Copland contributing only two of the set's ten pieces, along with one group-credited free improv and an indirect closing nod to tradition with a reading of "Melancholy Baby" that still fits within the quartet's overall sphere of approach; freely interpreted, in this case with no time and no discernible changes, its melody remains recognizable amidst the freewheeling yet carefully controlled freedom and interaction within which this group operates.

The other important change is, for the first time, having an external producer—in this case, ECM label head Manfred Eicher. As good as Copland's two previous recordings sound, there's a notable and tremendous difference in how this date sounds: more delicate, more rarefied, with every note discernible right down to its final decay and even the most delicate touch of a cymbal occupying its rightful place in the overall soundscape. From the first notes of Abercrombie's opening "Vertigo," with Copland's repeated single-note motif supported by both his left hand and Abercrombie's careful voicing—one of the guitarist's strengths always being his intrinsic ability to work with other chordal instruments without either ever getting in the way of them—it's clear just how transparent everything is, allowing the music to breathe in ways that previous collaborations with Abercrombie, Copland and Gress have not.

Copland's delicate touch—at times, seeming to barely brush the keys, as on Abercrombie's balladic "As It Stands"—is definitive, as is the relentlessly reliable support coming from Gress and Baron, whether swinging elegantly on the pianist's brighter, appealingly lyrical "LST" or the guitarist's slower-tempo'd "Bacharach," the pair shifting feels so seamlessly as to be almost unnoticeable ... almost.

The interaction, in particular between Abercrombie and Copland, is as deep as decades playing together would suggest, and if this program of largely new composition feels both fresh and familiar to fans of both players, there's one tune that is particularly so: "Another Ralph's," an update—or, perhaps, sequel—to Abercrombie's "Ralph's Piano Waltz," originally written for guitarist/pianist and duo mate Ralph Towner
Ralph Towner
Ralph Towner
b.1940
guitar
, first heard on Timeless but which has become, along with that album's title tracks, one of Abercrombie's most often-played tunes, having been recorded by everyone from Towner himself on Solo Concert (ECM, 1980) to Abercrombie, who revisited the tune on Current Events (1986), with his then-trio of Marc Johnson
Marc Johnson
Marc Johnson
b.1953
bass
and Peter Erskine
Peter Erskine
Peter Erskine
b.1954
drums
.

Eicher often encourages artists to engage in free improvisation at his sessions, and while neither Abercrombie nor Copland are strangers to such unfettered contexts, "Shadow of a Doubt" is the first recorded instance of the two engaging in such completely unplanned spontaneity. Between Gress' soft arco, Copland's harp-like, sustain pedal-driven sweeps and Baron's textural cymbal work, it slowly coalesces into form as Abercrombie joins in with volume pedal-swelled lines, angular in nature but somehow soft and rounded in timbre, even as the quartet gradually turns to more oblique territory as the three-minute improvisation nears its end.

As good as their previous recordings together have been, 39 Steps represents a major leap forward for Abercrombie and Copland's relationship, even as the guitarist returns to the piano-based configuration that was his first touring context, back in the late '70s. With Copland a welcome addition to the ECM roster and Eicher paying so much attention to music coming out of the New York City area these last couple of years—notable (and diverse) examples being Tim Berne
Tim Berne
Tim Berne
b.1954
saxophone
's Shadow Man, Craig Taborn
Craig Taborn
Craig Taborn
b.1970
keyboard
's Chants and Chris Potter
Chris Potter
Chris Potter
b.1971
reeds
's The Sirens, all 2013 releases—here's hoping that this quartet will continue, and that Copland will ultimately be afforded the opportunity to record more for the label...perhaps, even, a solo piano session, whose potential would be most intriguing with Eicher in the producer's chair, and with the lucent sonics of the label that Abercrombie has called home for nearly forty years.

Track Listing: Vertigo; LST; Bacharach; Greenstreet; As It Stands; Spellbound; Another Ralph's; Shadow of a Doubt; 39 Steps; Melancholy Baby.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: guitar; Marc Copland: piano; Drew Gress: double bass; Joey Baron: drums.

Record Label: ECM Records

Style: Modern Jazz


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