Contact: Dave Liebman / John Abercrombie / Marc Copland / Drew Gress / Billy Hart: Five on One (2010)
They've played together in various permutations and combinations, but Five on One represents the first time they've joined together as a discrete unit. Reconvening the Second Look (Savoy, 1996) quartetwhich comprises four-fifths of Contact pianist Marc Copland proved you can go back again with Another Place (Pirouet, 2009). The quartet's bassist, Drew Gress, has also been a longstanding member of Copland's piano trio, last heard on Night Whispers: New York Trio Recordings Vol. 3 (Pirouet, 2009). Its drummer, Billy Hart, teamed with saxophonist Dave Liebman in Quest, a late-'80s group that reunited for a 2005 tour, documented on Redemption: Live in Europe (Hatology, 2007). Finally, guitarist John Abercrombie was a charter member of the 1970s group Lookout Farm with Liebman. Closing the circle, Liebman and Copland are no strangers, having joined forces for the duo recording Bookends, and quartet set Lunar, both released in 2002 on Switzerland's Hatology label.
Contact brings these five players together for an egalitarian set of eight originals and one standarda surprisingly open-ended look at the enduring classic, "You and the Night and the Music," which runs the gamut from a dark, modal vamp that immediately speaks Copland's distinctive harmonic voice (and provides a unique context for the song's familiar melody) to fiercely swinging grist for some uncharacteristically outgoing solo playing from the normally pensive pianist.
It's the very combination of a pianist who, more often than not, leans towards introspection and impressionism, and a saxophonist for whom the word "burning" is rarely seen far from his name, that makes Five on One such a revelation. Each player demonstrates his individual strengths and predilections, but coming together clearly pushes each into unexpected territory, as Copland's skewed romanticism and harmonic ambiguity on his own "Childmoon Smile" leads to a soprano solo from Liebman that combines passionate lyricism and evocative leaps into the instrument's upper register.
Abercrombie's writing dominates the set, with three tunes including the almost-album-titled "Four on One," essentially a free improvisation with a brief head that acts as both context setter and rallying point. Taken to far greater extremes than versions on the guitarist's Night (ECM, 1984) or John Abercrombie/Marc Johnson/Peter Erskine (ECM, 1989), it combines a collective chemistry, engendered from years of working in other contexts, with an equally vital sound of surprise, stemming from this first encounter as a unit. As ever, Abercrombie's biggest strength lies in his ability to possess a distinct and recognizable voice without resorting to stock phrases or musical devices that, over time, begin to ring of repetitiveness and predictability.
A description that can, in fact, apply to everyone in Contact. Whether it's turning to starker melodism on Liebman's "Lost Horizon" (co-written with wife Caris Visentin) or revisiting Gress' slow-cooking "Like It Never Was," from the bassist's outstanding 7 Black Butterflies (Premonition, 2005), this is a marriage of many qualities that could, in other hands, work against each other, but here serendipitously assert a unique and compelling collective voice. With a debut this strong, here's hoping Five on One isn't a one-off affair.
Track Listing: Sendup; Like It Never Was; Childmoon Smile; Four on One; Lost Horizon; Retractable Cell; My Refrain; Lullaby for Imke; You and the Night and the Music.
Personnel: Dave Liebman: tenor and soprano saxophones; John Abercrombie: guitar; Marc Copland: piano; Drew Gress: bass; Billy Hart: drums.