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John Abercrombie Quartet – Up And Coming – ECM Records ECM 2528 5726238 180-gram stereo vinyl [distr. by Universal Music Group], 45:13 ****1/2:

The world of jazz guitar has never experienced the celebratory appeal that trumpeters, saxophonists or pianists enjoy. In earlier configurations, (especially in big bands) the guitar was used as a rhythm instrument. In the 1930’s and 1940’s there was Manouche virtuoso, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian (who played with Benny Goodman) and Oscar Moore (Nat King Cole’s trio). The small combo jazz of post World War II saw a significant emergence of guitarists. While they were still entrenched in rhythm functions, the guitar became a lead instrument with solo improvisation. Modern guitars like the Gibson ES-75 enhanced their technical largesse. Ten years later, musicians like Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Grant Greene and Charlie Kessell used fully rounded guitars. This breathed life into jazz fusion in the 70’s Part of their success was interpolating blues imagery of rock into post-bop jazz. Pat Martino, Jim Hall, Al Di Meola, John Scofield, Larry Coryell and perhaps the most adventurous of this group, John McLaughlin were pioneers in this genre.

Another guitarist, John Abercrombie emerged from the jazz fusion scene to establish himself as a band leader and composer at ECM Records. For nearly forty years, Abercrombie and Manfred Eicher shared a unique musical direction. Abercrombie’s first ECM release Timeless was auspicious. Featuring Jack DeJohnette (drums), and Jan Hammer (keyboards), Abercrombie became renowned as a jazz player. In addition to duos (a great one with Ralph Towner) and various trios, his goal was to incorporate the creative energy of bop forms with harmonic imagery. Perhaps Abercrombie’s finest achievement was the “classic’ quartet that included Abercrombie (guitar). Mark Copland (piano), Drew Gress (double bass) and Joey Baron (drums). This quartet released the popular 39 Steps (2013) and 2017’s Up And Coming.

ECM released a 180-gram vinyl release of UP And Coming. The album consists of 5 Abercrombie originals, two by Marc Copland and a Miles Davis cover. The opening track, “Joy” is a meditative exploration. Abercrombie approximates the melody with a gentle murmur, as Copland lends subtle piano shading. Drummer Joey Baron delivers much of the percussive emphasis with delicate cymbal work. Abercrombie and Copland seem to play in a slightly delayed timing in this different interpretation of joy. “Flipside’ appears to be heading in a similar mellow arrangement, but a medium swing bop vibe is unveiled. In a concise 2:53, Abercrombie leads the quartet with a clean, fluid lead as Copland, Gress and Baron organize the rhythm accompaniment. Copland’s solo is buoyant with harmonic overtones. Abercrombie joins seamlessly in the close. Copland imparts a hymnal resonance in the opening to “Sunday School”. As Abercrombie merges with the combo (with his customary agility), a low-keyed 3/4 time is established. His soloing is tender and glows with heartfelt elegance. Copland delicacy and classical shading is exemplary. When the two combine, the results are cohesive and supple. The title track showcases the melancholic finesse and cool tempo of this quartet. Abercrombie’s gossamer lines are intriguing. Copland manages both finger-snapping potency and haunting undertone. All four members coalesce on this one.

Side B begins (“Tears”) with a moody piano introduction that builds in melodic aspiration as Abercrombie adds his wistful notation. Baron’s understated cymbals are stellar and Gress’ double bass solo is agile. Abercrombie plays over the pulsating drone-like piano in dramatic coherence. On the second Copland composition (“Silver Circle”), a complex, syncopated context is constructed. There are rhythmic piano accents and jazzy chording to complement Abercrombie’s commanding solo. Baron’s drumming is forceful and Gress keeps time with grittiness. Copland’s solo is ethereal and Abercrombie cuts loose with restrained abandon. On the only cover Miles Davis’ epochal “Nardis”, the jam is permeated with gentle swing aesthetics. With modality, Copland shines on a trademark “minimalist’ solo. His rhythmic accents mold with Grass and Baron who have a brief duet interlude. Abercrombie articulates a glowing prominence on his run. This number integrates the finer points of melodic interpretation and improvisational nuance. The finale, “Jumbles” is an up-tempo (not too fast) groove that features accessible, lithe solos by Abercrombie and Copland.

This is a fitting “last act” for a musician like Abercrombie. His devotion to instrumental excellence is evident in his diverse play. The quartet has innate chemistry and embrace a shared musical vision. ECM’s vinyl pressing is pristine. There are no hisses or pops. The electric guitar is captured in sleek tonality without unnecessary distortion or studio-enhanced effects. The stereo separation is excellent and the overall mix is centered. Fans of vinyl will appreciate the full-sized cover pastel by Sheilah Rechtschaffer. It is eye-catching. The album includes a digital download.

John Abercrombie – guitar; Marc Copland – piano; Drew Gress – double bass; Joey Baron – drums

TrackList:
Side A: Joy; Flipside; Sunday School; Up And Coming
Side B: Tears; Silver Circle; Nardis; Jumbles

—Robbie Gerson