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John Abercrombie: The First Quartet

Karl Ackermann By

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In his more than thirty year career—almost exclusively with ECM—guitarist John Abercrombie has more often than not confined his formation to smaller groups ranging from solo through quartet. He has been less restricted in the style of music he creates and that diversity is demonstrated with mixed results on The First Quartet. The albums included in the three-disc set are remastered from original ECM analog recordings of Arcade (1979), Abercrombie Quartet (1979) and M (1981). All but unavailable in CD format, these three early quartet outings have been bundled as part of ECM's Old & New Masters collection and represent some early building blocks in Abercrombie's development.

Abercrombie, a New York native of Scottish parents, began his career straddling rock, blues and jazz. In the late 1960s he played with Michael Brecker and Randy Brecker before moving on to Gil Evans and then drummer Billy Cobham. If there was a dominant thread in these experiences it was a leaning toward an overall fusion style but with Abercrombie's third ECM release, Gateway (1975), a co-operative effort with Jack DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland, he progressed into a trippy, free style that opened up new and more impressionistic directions. By the late 1970's Abercrombie formed the group featured on The First Quartet with the well-established talents of pianist Richie Beirach, bassist George Mraz and drummer Peter Donald.

Across the three discs, Abercrombie and Beirach own most of the writing credits though Mraz contributes as well. The first disc contains the material from Arcade and it is the strongest element of The First Quartet collection. Opening up with the title track of the above-mentioned original album, we have the kind of high-energy improvisation that worked so well on Gateway. Abercrombie's lightning speed doesn't obscure his crystal-clear articulation nor Beirach's exceptional ability to build in astounding surges of theater, balanced with intelligent lyricism. "Nightlake" and "Paramour" downstream the tempo but always with a groove anchored by Mraz and guided by Donald. "Neptune" and "Alchemy" close the first disc with almost twenty minutes of ethereal bliss that feels like a cross-pollination of early Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays and Carlos Santana's Caravanserai (Columbia Records, 1972).

Disc two—from Abercrombie Quartet—opens with the precise and punchy "Blue Wolf" with blistering performances from Abercrombie and Beirach. Despite the high caliber of musicianship, the middle tracks on this disc falter a bit and seem less focused with fits and starts that can be distracting. "Riddles" re-grounds the group with its rock beat and a fine extended solo from Donald. Mraz has his moment to shine on the second disc closer, a more low key "Foolish Dog." The final disc, M, begins beautifully with "Boat Song," a slow building melodic and harmonic invention with controlled improvisation followed by the much looser, mid-tempo title track. "Veils" features a gorgeous extended intro solo from Beirach before the piece takes off and then closes quietly.

Bearing in mind that The First Quartet represents Abercrombie's initial output as a leader, the collection contains quite a few absolutely stellar numbers that would make the highlight reel in any musical career. In Abercrombie's curriculum vitae they were jumping off points in a musical resume that continues to grow and modify while the guitarist maintains the unique qualities that have long ranked him among the best modern players. Perhaps The First Quartet would have been served better as a double-disc on a purely musical basis, but for those who have an interest in the career development of one of the finest musical minds of our time, this is a collection to own.

Track Listing: (Disc 1) Arcade; Nightlake; Paramour; Neptune; Alchemy; (Disc 2) Blue Wolf; Dear Rain; Stray; Madagascar; Riddles; Foolish Dog; (Disc 3) Boat Song; M; What Are The Rules; Flashback; To Be; Pebbles.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: guitar, mandolin guitar; Richie Beirach: piano; George Mraz: double bass; Peter Donald: drums.

Title: The First Quartet | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: ECM Records

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