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JOHN ABERCROMBIE QUARTET – UP AND COMING / ECM 2528

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

Guitarist John Abercrombie returns with a second album by his quartet featuring pianist Marc Copland, along with longtime rhythm partners Drew Gress and Joey Baron. Extolling 39 Steps, the group’s 2013 album, the Financial Times said: “The emphasis is on subtle intrigue, flowing lyricism and the interplay between the leader’s warm, cleanly articulated guitar and Copland’s piano… with bassist Gress and drummer Baron equally supple and sinewy companions.” The same virtues of lyrical melody and harmonic/rhythmic subtlety are apparent with Up and Coming, though with even more emphasis on the enduring values of song. Abercrombie’s liquid phrasing and glowing tone animate his five originals and a pair by Copland, as well as a take on the Miles Davis classic “Nardis” done in the spirit of Bill Evans. 

As they did for 39 Steps, the foursome convened for Up and Coming at Avatar Studios in New York City with producer Manfred Eicher. Befitting the free-flowing, lambent mood of such highlights as “Joy” and “Sunday School,” the sessions were especially relaxed and congenial, with “not only a lot of playing but also a lot of listening going on,” Abercrombie says. “As players, we’ve all known each other such a long time. Also, Manfred and I have worked closely together in the studio for so long – since 1974 – that we don’t have to say too much. We can just do what we do.”

Abercrombie’s connection to Copland goes back even further than the guitarist’s ECM connection, back to when they were both playing in Chico Hamilton’s band in the early ’70s. “Marc was still playing the alto sax when we met – he hadn’t yet decided to concentrate on the piano,” the guitarist recalls. “As players, we’ve always related. I respond to his touch at the piano – it’s smooth and blends with my sound, fluid rather than percussive. He floats over bar lines and abstracts things, while still respecting the form. And his key influences – Bill Evans, Paul Bley – are right up my alley. He also never plays just what I write on the page. He expands the tune, making it better, adding ‘Copland-isms,’ things that I love but would never think of myself.” Noting that the pianist wrote the dark-hued “Tears” and the fetching “Silver Circle” for Up and Coming, the guitarist says: “Marc is an interesting composer, who writes differently than I do – it’s always a nice contrast. His writing is more classically oriented in a way, polychordal without being dense.” 

Abercrombie met Baron in the late ’70s, when the younger musician subbed for the regular drummer on one of the guitarist’s gigs at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California. “Joey has always been able to swing his ass off,” Abercrombie says, “whether he was playing with Carmen McRae or John Zorn.” Gress first partnered with Baron for Abercrombie in the quartet that recorded the guitarist’s 2012 ECM album Within a Song, with saxophonist Joe Lovano. “Joey and Drew are just so good together, with this loose but rhythmically accurate way of playing,” Abercrombie says. “And with Joey holding it down – he’s our anchor – Drew can take risks, as he likes to do.”

This band’s penchant for form contrasts with Abercrombie’s more free-minded quartet with violinist Mark Feldman that made four ECM albums from 2000 to 2009 (with Baron also a member of that group). “It’s a bit more natural to play free with just one harmonic instrument in a band,” the guitarist explains. “With both guitar and piano, there’s inevitably more emphasis on harmony. That said, we like to play the form but keep it a bit open, do something with it. There’s an elastic quality to this band’s playing, nothing is ever too on-the-nose – and that’s the way I’ve always liked things.”

The key sonic signature of Up and Coming, of course, is Abercrombie’s guitar playing, the style of which has evolved over the years. The mellow, almost autumnal sound he has been getting over the past decade and a half can be traced to him no longer playing with a pick, preferring to strike the strings with his thumb. The fluidity of his phrasing – always there – has only become more pronounced, with his tone warmer and more limpid than ever, allied to a characteristically incisive improvisational sense. “I play less fast than I used to, less ‘technical’,” he says. “My playing is also more to the point, with melodic lines clearer. The softer attack suits this music, which has a more meditative quality at times. I’ve been doing this long enough that I just follow my muse, do what feels right.” 

Born in 1944 in Port Chester, New York, Abercrombie grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he began playing the guitar at age 14. He started out imitating Chuck Berry licks, but the bluesy sound of Barney Kessel soon attracted him to jazz. After graduating from Boston's Berklee College of Music, he went to New York, where he quickly became an in-demand session player, recording with Gil Evans and Gato Barbieri, among others. Abercrombie’s first ECM as a leader was Timeless, recorded in 1974 with Jack DeJohnette and Jan Hammer. The next year, the guitarist recorded the first of several albums with the dynamic trio Gateway, a cooperative also featuring DeJohnette and Dave Holland.

At the end of the ’70s, Abercrombie formed his first quartet (with Richie Beirach, George Mraz and Peter Donald), recording three albums with the band for ECM that saw the guitarist move away from the sound of jazz-rock toward more spacious, impressionistic music. That body of work was reissued in 2015 via a boxed set titled The First Quartet in the label’s Old & New Masters series. The Guardian noted that the reissue exemplified some of Abercrombie’s signature merits, including his “expressive lyricism.” The guitarist has played on more than 50 ECM sessions, not only as a leader but as a highly creative contributor to recordings led by DeJohnette, Kenny Wheeler, Enrico Rava, Jan Garbarek and Charles Lloyd, among many others.

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