John Abercrombie Quartet: Within A Song
Within A Song
In the jazz world, one thing that keeps a lot of fans coming back for more with their favorite artists is the unpredictability factor. It may well be human nature to subconsciously form preconceptions, but with this music, it's usually best to avoid reductionist pigeonholing as, more often than not, it sets self-limiting expectations. Guitarist John Abercrombie has proven, in a career now well into its fifth decade, that just when it seems clear where he's heading, he veers unexpectedly elsewherethough there always seems to be some thread of commonality running through it all. Since forming the quartet with pianist Richie Beirach that debuted on Arcade (ECM, 1978), Abercrombie's release pattern with his regular groups has, however, been largely consistent, with three recordings featuring the same lineup before moving, at least, on record, to the next. Even the quartet with violinist Mark Feldman and drummer Joey Baron that has occupied much of the guitarist's attention in the new millennium released three records with Marc Johnson before Thomas Morgan took over the bass chair to alter its complexion for Wait Till You See Her (ECM, 2009).
Despite no signs of that configuration exceeding its "best by" date, Within A Song represents a directional shift of sorts, while still possessing some of the markers that link all of Abercrombie's work together. Drummer Joey Baron is the only carryover in a quartet that, along with bassist Drew Gressmaking his second appearance on ECM after his label debut (with Abercrombie) on saxophonist John Surman's Brewster's Rooser (2009)also features saxophonist Joe Lovano, on his first session for the label since drummer Paul Motian's final trio recording with guitarist Bill Frisell, Time and Again (2007). It's an inspired choice for an album that pays tribute to some seminal music of the 1960s, even though Abercrombie is the only one who fits the bill of his brief liners, referring to ..."an old saying that goes: if you can remember the 1960s you probably weren't there." Abercrombie was there and he does remember, but if Lovano, Gress and Baron were, for the most part, pre-teens when most of the inspirations for Within A Song were first recorded, then their subsequent careersranging as far and wide as their leader'shave all demonstrated a near-mitochondrial appreciation and, even more importantly, understanding of that innovative period.
Abercrombie has often covered a song or two on his recordings as a leader, but he's largely focused on original material. Within A Song flips the equation, with only three original songs in a nine-song set that touches on Miles Davis, with an indigo-tinged version of "Flamenco Sketches" that's even more impressionistic than the original on the trumpeter's seminal Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)). Abercrombie also pays tribute to saxophonists John Coltrane, with "Wise One" (from Crescent (Impulse!, 1964), and Ornette Coleman, with the free jazz founder's "Blues Connotation," from This is Our Music (Atlantic, 1961), moving effortlessly from time and changes to greater freedom, only to find its way back, mid-song, for Lovano's ambling but effervescent solo.
Within A Song never actually reaches a boil, with the opening "Where Are You" and Abercrombie's "Easy Reader" setting a relatively gentle pace. Still, the guitarist's title trackwhich borrows both indirectly and, ultimately, directly from the Youmans/Rose standard "Without A Song"does turn the heat up to a simmer, while Bill Evans' "Interplay" swings vibrantly at a medium tempo thanks to Gress and Baron, whose powerful punctuationsrarely as flat-out exuberant as some of his best work in Bill Frisell's group of the 1980s/90s, but still demonstrating the occasional slap-happy bentare unexpected but never gratuitous.
The entire quartet's behind-the-beat approach when it comes to both groove and melody may give Within A Song its generally relaxed veneer, but beneath this largely soft surface is a freer approach that speaks to Abercrombie's explanation, in a 2004 All About Jazz interview: "I like free playing that has some relationship to a melody; very much the way Ornette Coleman used to write all those wonderful songs and then they would play without chords on a lot of them; but they still had these great melodies to draw you in and act as a reference point; I think having a reference point when you're playing this kind of music is very important."
A cursory look at the collective discography of everyone in this quartet reveals players comfortable with the tradition and in more left-of-center contexts. Given Baron's textural playing here, there are times when Within A Song actually recalls some of Lovano's wonderful On Broadway recordings with Motian and Frisell from the late 1980s/early 90swhere that group found ways to deconstruct well-heeled tunes, albeit with more overt fire, at times, contrasting a similarly impressionistic approach. But if Abercrombie is a less idiosyncratic player than Frisell, he's just as unpredictable. Time and again, on album and in performances ranging from Montreal in 2007 and Mannheim in 2009, to Ottawa in 2010, Abercrombie is both instantly recognizable and perennially fresh, never resorting to stock ideas or signature lines. If he has largely focused on string-driven chamber jazz for the better part of the last decade, with Within A Song he's delivered an unequivocal jazz recordingone founded on the groundbreaking music of the 1960s, to be sure, but, in the hands of these fine players, resonating with fresh, contemporary relevance.
Tracks: Where Are You; Easy Reader; Within A Song / Without A Song; Flamenco Sketches; Nick of Time; Blues Connotation; Wise One; Interplay; Sometime Ago.
Personnel: John Abercrombie: guitar; Joe Lovano: tenor saxophone; Drew Gress: double bass; Joey Baron: drums.