Jazz CD Reviews

John Abercrombie – Class Trip – ECM Records

Free form guitarist charts his own course.

Published on December 21, 2010

John Abercrombie – Class Trip – ECM Records

John Abercrombie – Class Trip – ECM Records 1846 B0002289-02, 72:03 (2004/2010) ****1/2:

(John Abercrombie – guitar; Mark Feldman – violin; Marc Johnson – double-bass; Joey Baron – drums)

John Abercrombie has never been a traditional musician. He came of age in the world of post-Bitches Brew jazz. While a student at the prestigious Berklee School Of music, he left the rock and roll idiom after discovering jazz. In Boston, he would join the Brecker brothers in the jazz/rock group Dreams. After moving to New York, he established a reputation as a respected session player, working with Gil Evans, Chico Hamilton, Gato Barbieri and Barry Miles. It was his tenure with Billy Cobham’s band that would cement his stature as a daring guitar player. The group opened for various high profile rock and roll bands, including the Doobie Brothers, creating a buzz.

In the 1970’s Abercrombie met Manfred Eicher and signed with ECM. His debut release, Timeless, received critical acclaim. Subsequent releases, with different instrumental combinations led to experimentation (he has played an electric mandolin) and improvisational collaborations. He continues to attract work as a highly sought after studio player and influential band leader.

Class Trip is another daring album that features Mark Feldman (violin), Marc Johnson (double-bass) and Joey Baron (drums). With an unusual ensemble, consisting of two primary string instruments, melodic passages are entwined in a natural setting. The opening number, “Dansir” begins, as Abercrombie lays down a delicate melodic lead against cymbal percussion by Joey Baron, and a moody bass by Marc Johnson. Mark Feldman comes in as a dual lead on violin, eventually trading off with the guitar. This is emblematic of the significant chemistry of the quartet. On “Illinoise”, the effectiveness of the drumming sustains a driving rhythm, even with brushes. Abercrombie and Feldman play attacking counter leads that envelop the musical theme with alternating melancholy and intensity. The title cut has an inventive opening (almost a slow waltz), that segues into a lyrical violin solo, followed by a tempo changing run on guitar.

The song melodies have a plaintive quality, with seamless transitions. “Soldier’s Song” features a more textured, classical-infused violin. Abercrombie matches the elegance of the violin with equal delicacy on “Jack and Betty”. The two string players have a feel for the pace and coloration of each other’s expression. Johnson has several coalescing moments on the double-bass. His solo on “Risky Business” is harmonic and flows into the guitar part that follows. This rhythm section is innovative and flawless in sustaining consistency on the extended jams. Within the atmospheric arrangements are immaculate changes in rhythm. “Descending Grace” has a furious violin break, and a fusion guitar solo that swings and interacts with conviction. All of this music has an underlying cohesiveness. Abercrombie displays enhanced versatility. Whether it’s the subtlety of “Excuse My Shoes”, with its hushed, drifting structure, or the up tempo swing of “Swirls”, the guitarist is in step with his band mates.  Feldman displays a vigorous style that augments the collective innovation of the group.
For anyone interested in experiencing an atypical jazz quartet, Class Trip will be a welcome revelation.  

TrackList: Dansir; Risky Business; Descending Grace; Illinoise; Cat Walk; Excuse My Shoes; Swirls; Jack and Betty; Class Trip; Soldier’s Song; Epilogue

— Robbie Gerson

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