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John Abercrombie: Timeless

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The recordings are always a little more controlled because they're done in a studio and you're trying to get a certain thing down. But anything can happen on the gig.
By Bill Milkowski

Over the past 30 years, since the 1974 recording of Timeless , his groundbreaking debut for the ECM label, John Abercrombie has remained one of the most genuinely original guitar voices of his generation (which would include such heavyweight colleagues as John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Mike Stern and Pat Metheny). A fearless improvisor who is as comfortable in purely free settings as he is blowing over changes, Abercrombie has consistently surrounded himself with creative players and made uncompromising choices throughout his 30-year association with ECM, whether it was his evocative duets with fellow guitarist Ralph Towner, his Gateway cooperative trio with Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland, as the leader of various trios and quartets since the '70s or as a sideman in bands led by such fellow ECM artists as Charles Lloyd, Kenny Wheeler, Jan Garbarek, Jack DeJohnette, Colin Walcott, Enrico Rava, Barre Phillips and Dave Liebman.

As he approaches age 60 (on December 16th of this year), Abercrombie finds himself in the unique position of juggling four very different playing situations that appeal to different aspects of his wide-ranging musicality. There's his acoustic guitar trio with fellow six-string virtuosos Larry Coryell and Badi Assad, his working organ trio with Hammond B-3 specialist Dan Wall and drummer Adam Nussbaum (see photo), and he's also part of the renegade jazz trio Jackalope (with alto saxophonist Loren Stillman and drummer Bob Meyer) which plays the occasional gig at alternative spaces like CBGB's Gallery in downtown New York. But Abercrombie's primary outlet these days is his quartet with violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron. Together they recorded Cat 'n' Mouse in 2000 (which was released in 2002 to widespread acclaim) and have recently followed up with Class Trip. The chemistry between the four incredibly versatile, open-minded musicians borders on the telepathic on their latest ECM offering as they travel from delicate, chamber-like waltz numbers like "Cat Walk", "Descending Grace" and the title track to an urgently swinging burner like "Swirls", a free form blowout in "Illinoise", the hauntingly beautiful ballad "Jack and Betty" and the raucous rock-fueled freakout "Epilogue".

Along the way, Abercrombie strikes a remarkable accord with Feldman, a magnificent virtuoso who has been called "the Heifitz of our generation" by one noted New York violinist and teacher, Brenda Vincent. A former Nashville sessioneer, Feldman has also been a stalwart on New York's cutting edge downtown scene since the '80s. Few other working musicians today can boast of having gigged with such a diverse list of artists as Johnny Cash and John Zorn, Tammy Wynette and Kenny Wheeler, Paul Bley and the Basil Sinfonietta...and fit in perfectly in each situation. Although Abercrombie first heard Feldman play at a mid '80s workshop in Banff, Canada, they didn't begin working together until 1998, when the violinist was recruited to play alongside John's organ trio on Open Land. Since that time, Feldman's violin has become a vital part of Abercrombie's writing for the the new quartet.

"I really enjoy playing with Mark a lot," says John. "Of course, guitar and violin is a classic combination going back to Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti or Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli and all the way up to John McLaughlin and Jerry Goodman. I don't know if it's been done recently and I think our thing is quite different from those other combinations. We might sound a little bit like Jerry Goodman and McLaughlin at times but we don't have much of the other stuff in it and I think that's mostly due to the tunes I write and the way Mark improvises. I don't know if there are many other people playing that instrument who can play my tunes. That's what's so great about him...he can improvise over chords, he can improvise freely, he can really do it all because he's got so much experience, plus, he's a classically trained violinist. So it's just great having him in the quartet."

Feldman's bold, beautiful tone, graceful lyricism and stunning virtuosity is a perfect match for Abercrombie's own legato approach to the guitar. That blend is apparent on the darkly evocative opener "Dansir", their guitar-violin intro to the chamber-like "Risky Business" and the dynamic "Swirls". Feldman's classical pedigree also comes in handy on the quartet's improvised arrangement of Bela Bartok's "Soldier's Song" (from the 44 Duos for Two Violins), which serves as a springboard into some spontaneous counterpoint between guitarist and violinist.

"Some of the counterpoint is written, but not much," Abercrombie explains. "There's a lot of really open space for me to play counterpoint against Mark, or vice versa. That's the way we like to keep it. I don't like too much written down because then you can't vary it, you can't move from the printed page."

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