John Abercrombie ‘The First Quartet’ 3CD Box Set (ECM) 4/5

john-abercrombieDating from between 1978 and 1980, this excellent box set groups together the only remaining parts of John Abercrombie’s ECM work that hitherto was unavailable on CD. Collectively, they constitute a small, yet cohesive early career overview with an identical line-up throughout. Berklee educated guitarist John Abercrombie was, during his twenties, introduced to some of the jazz greats and performed with the likes of Chico Hamilton as well as recording with Billy Cobham. By 1978, Abercrombie had already recorded six albums for ECM and, in his mid-thirties, was a fully matured musician. The fixed formation comprised pianist Richie Beirach who was his closest writing partner on all three albums, double bassist George Mraz and drummer Peter Donald. The latter two were in fact former Berklee alumni whom Abercrombie met while studying there. In the case of Beirach, the guitarist met him at a latter date when he moved to New York. In fact they recorded together in 1974 as sidemen on Dave Liebman’s ECM album, ‘Workout Farm’.
The first of the trio of album’s, ‘Arcade’, is probably the least accomplished in that the band were only getting to know one another and had yet to tour extensively. For all that, the music is deeply melodic with a hint of the early Pat Metheny ECM albums about them. If some of the original compositions (five in total and divided up between three written by the pianist and two by the guitarist) meander a little too long, then the laid back, ‘Nightlake’, impresses and was an indication of what was to come. The second album, ‘Abercrombie Quartet’, is a marked improvement with significantly stronger and more concise writing, one more composition than on the previous album and equally divided up between pianist and guitarist. A particular favourite of this writer is the Spanish-flavoured intro to ‘Blue Wolf’, with fine interplay between Beirach and Abercrombie. This piece has something of a modal feel to it. With a nod to the prevailing jazz-fusion era, ‘Riddles’ takes off and features some lovely supportive piano comping while Abercrombie explores. For lyricism, the reflective, Dear Rain’, was a clear indication of the quartet gelling nicely with fine in tandem work. By the time of the third recording, ‘M’. the group had left the refined sound of Oslo and relocated to Ludwigsburg. John Abercombie has gone on record as stating that this was by far the most difficult of the three albums to record and consequently insists that the sound was harsher and rawer in nature. To these ears, the general tone is more layered with the quiet, introspective opener, ‘Boat Song’, revealing a more pared down and minimalist approach. What should be stated is that Abercrombie did not really sound like any of his contemporaries and, unlike an older generation of guitarists such as George Benson, Pat Martino who were more riff-oriented, Abercrombie had been far more influenced by Jim Hall and pianist Bill Evans and these were musicians who were more motif-driven. Of interest equally is how utterly different this essentially acoustic formation sounded from what was happening elsewhere in the late 1970s with jazz-fusion and jazz-funk in the ascendency and disco and punk emerging more widely the field of popular music.

If these recordings do not quite hit the balmy heights of the ‘Gateway’ albums that featured the dynamic rhythm section of Dave Holland and Jack de Johnette, they nonetheless represent an important pivotal stage in John Abercrombie’s career and one in which his compositional skills began to develop immeasurably. For that experience alone, these albums are worthy of re-investigation. In keeping with ECM tradition, the box set has minimalist packaging with plain white sleeves plus the album titles in black. However, the twenty-five page booklet leaves no stone unturned and contains an informative mini essay by writer John Kelman.

Tim Stenhouse