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
, 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
's long overdue ECM debuta post-Bill Evans
pianist whose attention to touch and space have long made him a worthy candidate for the label's pristine sonic approachbut this group, with the exception of drummer Joey Baron
, who replaces original drummer Billy Hart
, 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 producerin 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 voicingone of the guitarist's strengths always being his intrinsic ability to work with other chordal instruments without either ever getting in the way of themit'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 touchat 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 updateor, perhaps, sequelto Abercrombie's "Ralph's Piano Waltz," originally written for guitarist/pianist and duo mate Ralph Towner
, 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
and Peter Erskine
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 yearsnotable (and diverse) examples being Tim Berne
's Shadow Man
, Craig Taborn
and Chris Potter
's The Sirens
, all 2013 releaseshere'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.