John Abercrombie Quartet ‘Up and Coming’ (ECM) 4/5

ECM start off the new releases of the year with a strong quartet offering from John Abercrombie, recorded at the Avatar studios in New York under producer Manfred Eicher, with the guitarist’s long-standing quartet. This is that most subtle of musical experiences where the overriding emphasis is, on the one hand, upon lyricism that permeates proceedings and, on the other, upon the interplay between the musicians who know each other’s strengths and styles intimately, and are consequently at ease with one another. Marc Copland has a musical collaboration with the leader that goes all the way back to the early 1970s when Copland was then a saxophone player. The interplay between pianist and guitarist is a key element to understanding how the music operates here. Drew Grass is a respected double bassist who has performed among others with trumpeter Dave Douglas and pianist Fred Hersch. Experienced drummer Joey Barron has recorded in a wide variety of contexts and is ideally placed to replace the original quartet member, Billy Hart. All but one of the compositions are originals, five composed by the leader and the other two by Copland.
A reflective opener, ‘Joy’, begins with a quiet piano and guitar intro before gradually mutating into a mid-tempo groove with an uplifting main theme where guitar and piano work in tandem. This writer was particularly impressed by the conciseness of the piece. Copland has the opportunity to solo at length on the title track where once again it is the interplay between Abercrombie and the pianist that takes centre stage. As a whole the album is at its strongest on the melodic lyricism of the ballads and this is beautifully illustrated on the gentlest of ballads, ‘Tears’, with telepathic communication between pianist and guitarist. The one cover, ‘Nardis’, by Miles Davis is a favourite of Abercrombie that he has frequently performed, but never previously recorded as a leader. Here, the number is interpreted in an altogether moodier and more introspective setting. When the tempo does shift up a gear, it is nonetheless significantly below the usual tempo of the original. What is particularly appealing is the prominence of the piano here. On the lengthy piece, ‘Silver Circle’, Barron comes into his own on drums and at the end adds some evocative dub effects.

While the album is relatively short at just over forty-five minutes in length, that should in no way be equated with a lack of things to say. Quite the opposite in fact. It is clarity of communication that is of the essence here and on that criteria alone, the John Abercrombie quartet score highly. The quartet have five further live dates this month at Birdland, New York, with several scheduled for the Dazzle Jazz venue in Denver, Colorado during February before embarking on Europe in March.

Tim Stenhouse