John Abercrombie has recorded for ECM since 1973 (Dave Liebman's Lookout Farm
(ECM, 1974)) and has credits on about fifty albums as a leader, beginning with Timeless
(ECM, 1975), co-leader and sideman. The Third Quartet
is the third (unsurprisingly) record by this quartet comprised of Abercrombie on guitar, violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron, preceded by Cat 'n' Mouse
(ECM, 2002) and Class Trip
If you have not heard this group before, the preceding two records are well worth investigating. This latest effort brings this band to new heights of cohesion within a framework of extreme freedom. The band members, who individually are superb musicians and leaders themselves, obviously enjoy playing Abercrombie's music and the chemistry that he provides.
As a player, Abercrombie is instantly recognizable by the way his lines slither harmonically coupled with his non-picking right-hand technique and left-hand slides and slurs (which is a different kind of slithering). He is capable of the greatest rhythmic freedom one moment, only to lock in the next.
Whatever one thought of Mark Feldman's What Exit
(ECM, 2006), his work as a sideman and counterweight to Abercrombie on this record is sublime. His stylistic fusion of the freedom of jazz with classical gestures meshes (and contrasts) nicely with Abercrombie's compositional and playing style, where the traditional and free sides of jazz meet. What becomes clear over the course of the record is that Feldman has his own set of devices, especially when comping (i.e. the Bach "Chaconne" arpeggio, the evenly played double stops).
The band members are, at this point, so familiar with each other that the music just flows as each piece follows an organic arc created by the interactions and feedback that are continuously happening. Abercrombie's compositions provide a strong structure for the band to work within and which, almost magically, also allow much freedom. Quite a few beautiful melodies manage to be memorable without being obvious, which only points to the fact that nothing is obvious in this music, and yet it all ties strongly together. The Third Quartet
, which opens with the sizzling "Banshee" with its haunting melody, terrific cymbal work by Baron and stinging phrases by Abercrombie, does not stay at that pitch, but moves immediately to the sentimental "Number 9" and "Vingt Six," only to shift gears again later with Ornette Coleman's "Round Trip," with its strong rhythmic signature.
With something for everyone, Abercrombie's latest quartet is working both within and outside the tradition at a very high level, making music that will bring pleasure with each listen.