John Abercrombie – Timeless – ECM Records 

Vinyl reissue of jazz guitarist landmark ECM debut is terrific!

John Abercrombie – Timeless – ECM Records ECM 1047 (1974/2018) 180-gram vinyl (distr. by Universal Music Group) 43:36 ****1/2:

(John Abercrombie – guitar; Jan Hammer – organ, synthesizer, piano; Jack DeJohnette – drums)

John Abercrombie approached his life as a jazz guitarist like many of his 60’s contemporaries. Initially drawn to the classic 50’s rock and roll sound, he was introduced to jazz, in this case specifically to Barney Kessler. He attended the Berklee School Of Music and aspired to the likes of George Benson, Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall. Abercrombie became a session guitarist, playing with Gil Evans, Gato Barbieri and Barry Miles. He joined the Brecker Brothers in the popular jazz rock group Dreams. Along with his work in the Billy Cobham band, he caught the attention of record labels. One of these was ECM Records, headed by Manfred Eicher. In 1974, he formed a trio with Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette (who worked with Miles Davis on Bitches Brew) and recorded his ECM debut, Timeless. Abercrombie maintained a long, productive career with ECM, (nearly four decades) including a pair of trio recordings with Dave Holland and DeJohnette, Gateway and Gateway II.

ECM has reissued Timeless on 180-gram vinyl (which includes a digital download). The signature ECM simple, organic (very few studio effects) engineering is given a modern technology upgrade that maintains the musical vision of Abercrombie and producer Eicher. The opening track, “Lungs” (written by Hammer) takes off with a hard-charging Hammond organ by Hammer. Abercrombie alternates lead with an ever-changing jagged electric guitar. Whether it’s called fusion, avant-garde or free jazz, the high-energy improvisation is explosive. DeJohnette’s rhythmic sensibility is amazing, keeping the trio in an impromptu lockstep. But at 3:20, the jam changes with a spacey interlude as Hammer executes atmospheric organ and synthesizer in background to Abercrombie’s meditative riffs. DeJohnette keeps up his propulsive drumming. A 3rd transition comes in about the 7:00 mark. With a distinct funk vibe, the trio sustains an hypnotic pulse. Abercrombie unleashes airy guitar and potent rock-like riffs.

John Abercrombie Portrait

John Abercrombie

“Love Song” (one of four Abercrombie compositions) is a contrast, wistful in a duet of piano and acoustic guitar. Both Abercrombie and Hammer connect with a melancholy resonance. Hammer delivers restrained flourishes and Abercrombie’s phrasing is also understated, but with glowing imagery. “Ralph’s Piano Waltz” is in the great tradition of 3/4 jazz time signature. There is no piano, but Hammer injects many textures on organ, shading the guitar and handling a nimble solo at 2:20. DeJohnette’s stellar timing is ever-present. Abercrombie plays counter, lead and meshes seamlessly with his band. There are subtle tempo changes that showcase the cohesive strength of this trio. On Side 2, “Red And Orange” (Hammer song, all the rest are Abercrombie material) explodes back into the fusion mold. There is a kinship to Mahavisnu Orchestra (especially Birds Of Fire) with the frenetic instrumentals by all three players. Abercrombie’s solos are blistering and screech with intensity, and Hammer percolates on organ. DeJohnette drives them through any potential momentum pauses. The polyrhythmic dynamic is palpable and the commitment never diminishes. “Remembering” feels more structured as the duet of acoustic guitar and piano is revisited. With deft nuance, a graceful, melodic interpretation is rendered. The title finale is a bookend piece to the first cut, because of the 12:00 length. A brooding synthesizer and guitar build with controlled swelling, aided by the faintest of cymbals for percussion. Organ is accented on a layered approach, as Abercrombie takes an exquisitely phrased lead. The hushed aesthetics create a haunting moodiness. In this environment, Abercrombie expresses his fluency effectively. As DeJohnette adds a supple undercurrent of tempo, Hammer’s church-like organ and synthesizer make the arrangement glow with warmth.

The ability of these musicians to interact with such fluency and agility is stellar. ECM sets a high standard for low-key studio engineering that allows the spontaneous elegance of the instrumentals to be featured. It has the feel of a live session. The hymnal church organ has an ethereal ambiance, and the the wide array of guitar tonalities (from tender acoustic to piercing electric sound) sound natural in this mix. The vinyl pressing is impeccable without any detectable surface noise. The original cover design by Rolf Liese is beautiful. Fifty years after the inception of ECM Records, it is reassuring to see that artistic integrity is still front and center.

TrackList:
Side 1: Lungs; Love Song; Ralph’s Piano Waltz
Side 2: Red And Orange; Remembering; Timeless

—Robbie Gerson

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