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John Abercrombie Quartet: Up and Coming

John Kelman By

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John Abercrombie Quartet: Up and Coming Starting the new year with, if not precisely a bang, a nevertheless unforgettable record whose strength lies in pristine lyricism, nuanced group interplay and writing that capitalizes on the entire quartet's appreciation of subtlety over gymnastics and refined lyricism over angularity, John Abercrombie's Up and Coming—ECM's first release of the year—is also founded strongly on the concept of relationship.

The guitarist has been playing with Marc Copland since the pianist's days in the early '70s as a saxophonist before deserting it entirely for a career and discography that's as rich and rewarding as Abercrombie's. And the two have continued working together regularly since Copland's switch to piano: before coming to ECM on Abercrombie's critically acclaimed 39 Steps (2013), the pair had recorded in a group under Copland's name, first for Savoy Jazz with 1996's Second Look, then Hatology for 2003's Marc Copland And..., and finally with Pirouet on 2008's Another Place. And that excludes other projects, such as their 2010 quintet recording with Dave Liebman as Contact, Five on One (Pirouet), a 2011 duo recording, Speak to Me (Pirouet) and two trio recordings with the late Kenny Wheeler, including Brand New (Challenge, 2005).

But the relationship doesn't end there. Bassist Drew Gress' far-reaching ubiquity is only matched by his ability bring a personal sound to everything from the more avant-leaning The Claudia Quintet and Dave Douglas to contemporary mainstream spaces with artists including pianist Fred Hersch and Tim Hagans—not to mention a small but strong discography of his own, including 2013's The Sky Inside (Pirouet). He is not only a charter member of the same Abercrombie (or Copland, depending on the date) quartet, beginning with Second Look; he has a longstanding relationship with the pianist in other contexts, including 2009's New York Trio Recordings, Vol. 3: Night Whispers (Pirouet) and 2005's Some Love Songs (Pirouret), while joining the guitarist on a rare saxophone-infused date, Within a Song (ECM, 2012).

Joey Baron—whose joyous approach and willingness to try anything has turned him into a similarly in-demand musician—may be the relative youngster to this collective relationship, but he's far from new. He not only replaced original quartet drummer Billy Hart on Another Place and 39 Steps; his relationship with Abercrombie goes even farther back to the guitarist's four string-heavy recordings with violinist Mark Feldman, from 2002's Cat 'n' Mouse (ECM) through to 2009's Wait Till You See Her (ECM).

But as strong as relationships can be in building a group chemistry as potent as that found on Up and Coming, there has to be more to it. Guitar and piano do not always make for comfortable bedfellows, as the potential for stepping on each other's toes, harmonically speaking, is always a risk; but one of Abercrombie and Copland's greatest combined strengths is their ability to listen and intuit...there are never any of the "train wrecks" that so often run the risk of scuttling multiple harmonic instruments brought together. Instead, the pair seems to effortlessly complement one another with an appealing harmonic ambiguity that has become one of the group's touchstones; its open-ears approach extending, of course, to Gress and Baron, who manage to bring both sinewy strength and elegant understatement to this quartet's music.

From Up and Coming's relatively brief, introspective opener, the guitarist's curiously titled "Joy," the quartet combines elegant interpretation of a less-than-common yet still eminently singable theme with Abercrombie and Copland mere nanoseconds apart, creating a delicious sense of tension and release, to brief but eminently lyrical solos from the pair—the pianist, in particular, bolstered by the empathic Gress and Baron, builds this rubato tone poem to its clear climax...and suggests another definer of this wonderful quartet: its capacity for evoking broad dynamic contrasts with, sometimes, the subtlest of gestures.

Copland's delicate touch and use of his instrument's pedals to create even more expansive harmonies has long been a measure of his best work; a touchstone that fits, hand-in-glove, with Abercrombie's similarly less-traveled voicings and soft attack, the latter stemming from his move, in the mid-'90s, from plectrum to his thumb's yielding flesh. Together, the pair evoke remarkable strength without ever resorting to the obvious; both have managed to create instantly recognizable yet never predictable approaches that rely on a deeper melodic and harmonic language rather than more obvious signatures.

But as soft and lush as their collaborative sound is—and as much as it sometimes feels necessary to almost lean forward to fully capture their work—that shouldn't suggest that Abercrombie's quartet lacks muscle. The guitarist's more buoyant "Flipside"—another miniature that doesn't even break the three-minute mark—swings with powerful fluidity, its theme once again iterated in ever-so-slightly staggered fashion by the guitarist and pianist before Gress and Baron enter, the bassist walking hard and Baron delicately driving the brief solos with a persistent quarter-note cymbal pulse...but punctuated, on his snare and toms, as empathically as they are joy-filled. Anyone who has seen Baron in performance knows that a smile—and sometimes flat-out laughter—never seems to leave his face, as he approaches whatever music he's playing with a kind of reckless exhilaration, flexible interpretation and sheer joy that's rarely so visible in concert...and is, indeed, absolutely audible on record as well.

In an LP-length program that brings together five Abercrombie compositions with two contributions from Copland, it's particularly gratifying to hear this quartet approach Miles Davis' classic "Nardis"—a song that the guitarist has played often but never recorded under his own name. It is, perhaps, the best example of how inimitably Abercrombie, Copland, Gress and Baron collaborate; following a rubato intro, even when the group begins to play in tempo—and irrespective of this often-played song's melody—the quartet's loose, open-ended and surprise-laden approach renders this most familiar of compositions as unpredictable as anything else to be found on the record. Yes, the changes are always there: sometimes more direct, other times so subtly intimated as to be barely recognizable; and yet, when Abercrombie, Copland and Baron solo, their allegiance to the song's heart is paradoxically crystal clear while, at the same time, being somehow opaque.

All of these qualities characterize Up and Coming's entire 48-minutes duration, from Abercrombie's abstract yet melody-rich "Jumbles," waltz-time "Sunday School" and ambling title track to Copland's darker, more dramatic "Tears" (featuring a particularly memorable solo from Gress) and "Silver Circle"—the album's most unfettered and impressive example of everything that makes this group so special. Beginning with an open vamp, largely driven by Gress, it ultimately resolves into another singable but uncommon melody, setting up modal-based and motif-driven opportunities for both Abercrombie—who lends Up and Coming its only hint of grit with some slight overdrive—and Copland, who demonstrates that a soft touch can, indeed, possess plenty of inner strength.

All told, it may be Abercrombie's shortest album since his 1990 trio with Vince Mendoza and Jon Christensen, Animato; but like that often (and unfairly) overlooked album, Up and Coming's brief duration only renders it more appealing, like the perfect live performance that leaves an audience sated but, at the same time, hungry for more. That Copland has finally, in the past few years, found his way to ECM—in addition to Abercrombie, with bassist Gary Peacock, whose Now This (ECM, 2015), also featuring Baron, was one of the year's best recordings—seems, in retrospect, not only inevitable but overdue. The quartet Abercrombie has shared with Copland and Gress for over two decades, irrespective of who is listed as the leader, is finally being recorded with the clarity and transparency it deserves, while the creative input provided by label head/producer Manfred Eicher drives the music in directions it might not otherwise go.

All of which make Up and Coming, ECM's first record of 2017, a success on all fronts. This is a group whose collaborative capabilities have only strengthened over the years, growing deeper and more telepathic. Of the tradition while, at the same time, challenging it with a unique and instantly recognizable combination of grace-filled subtlety, rich melodism, improvisational élan, mitochondrial chemistry and a profound harmonic language, Up and Coming starts 2017 with an album that is already a strong contender for its year-end best-of lists.

Track Listing: Joy; Flipside; Sunday School; Up and Coming; Tears; Silver Circle; Nardis; Jumbles.

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

Title: Up and Coming | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: ECM Records


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