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John Abercrombie Quartet

Class Trip

(ECM; US: 27 Apr 2004; UK: 26 Apr 2004)

Extreme Chamber Music

To replace any of the four men featured here with an abler musician on his instrument would be worse than tricky. Unless you wanted a different kind of music altogether, any such attempted substitution would be pointless: John Abercrombie on guitar, Mark Feldman violin, Marc Johnson double-bass, Joey Baron drums.


In a programme of improvisations based almost all on his own idiosyncratically complex compositions, Abercrombie includes one on “Soldier’s Song”, from his and my revered Bartok (the original was one of the set of 44 Pieces for Violin Duo). Bartok’s easily pastiched, sometimes too easily by modern composers who’d rather not have sounded like echoes of him. Mock Bartok can be delivered like a mock “foreign accent”—just slot in a few of the most distinctive harmonies as mannerisms. It’s an alternative to the equally easy main drone of sounding dull and anonymous. Abercrombie neither pastiches Bartok nor does anything else easy (in the sense of cheap). Indeed, inclusion of the Bartok material seems almost something of a challenge, given the prospect of its performance becoming somebody else’s, or derivative. It’s the penultimate title on the CD, but any temptation to call it the standout is immediately dissolved by “Epilogue”, whose composer credit is to all four musicians and may indicate a collective improvisation.


The second track’s title is “Risky Business”, and there is some risky business here, noticed by me on track three, “Descending Grace”. There’s an excess of restraint, of subduedness. These wonderful musicians know all too well that there’s a fine line beyond which musical virtues are at risk, where a sudden blare or jar can mar or ruin. They stay too consistently within it, there is none of the cutting loose which Bartok could do as composer and/or performer (and he was an even greater musician than anybody here).


Was the music too new to these men? On “Descending Grace” Joey Baron alone seems not excessively preoccupied, seems relaxed, doesn’t give the impression of working out what he’s going to do when the big occasion comes. Perhaps the big occasion will be (and will have been) one and another live performance of this music on the “whirlwind tour” we are assured (April 2004) is impending—to promote this CD? Quite an occasion it could be, with an audience to remind the musicians—when they start to need reminding—that there are concerns beyond listening to and marvelling at each other. I called this note extreme chamber music because at its purest string quartet playing is four people in a circle, playing to each other, playing the music—not addressing in a mere half-circle the audience. That’s what seems to have gone on with these guys last December in the studio.


Abercrombie is an astonishing master of electric guitar, in command of tone alike with dynamics. The naked gut/ nylon strings and pure timber of “classical guitar” have resonances electric amplification forfeits—and yet Abercrombie applies fingers and finds these differentiations. Keeping the same time, he can chord like say Jimmy Raney or Jim Hall, and ping his notes. On “Cat Walk” he’s pretty well dancing with a lute behind Feldman’s fiddle. He can be at one with Feldman’s violin, or with Johnson’s murmuring bass, or the light ticking of Baron’s operation on the pulse. Then again, each of these three has his own talent for rapport.


“Excuse My Shoes” may or may not be an allusion to the graceless footwear Feldman has been known to affect on stage, but his violin sound shows it can swell to an amazing fullness—it would have made some more puritan European concert musicians of the past half-century feel (as some deserved to) downright ill. Hoorah!


I’m sick of reading how very different are the respective musics in which Feldman has taken part, but I’m not sick of hearing him play! On “... Shoes” heed also the guitar-bass interaction, each instrument strictly melodic with Baron doing an enormous amount intensely quietly. “Swirls” is wild but quiet, the sound or the acoustic (or something!) strangely remote. Feldman produces some downright viola sounds over drumming. Hark at the ensemble work on “Jack and Betty”, and the enormous melody on violin. Ask yourself, as the title track wafts in, who’s plucking what? Some of the miracles and some of the less important less interesting moments here suggest that Abercrombie’s guitar and Feldman’s fiddle are deeply in love. I did scrabble for the notes a couple of times, hearing what I took to be the entry of a flute. I don’t suppose Feldman was trying to make his fiddle produce flute-sounds, there just didn’t seem to be any other way that fine noise could have been produced.


“Soldier’s Song” is as earlier suggested exquisite. Bartok’s procedure with music often influenced by folk sounds, or bird or insect noises, was to begin with what seemed the aptest instrumentation, however eccentric at first look. He would compose for a slightly off-beam ensemble then revise for a mort orthodox instrumentation. “Soldier’s Song” might be a draft for something a string quartet would subsequently do. Baron engages with featherlight percussion, spreading magic dust. Four seconds under three minutes, and this has been utterly spellbinding.


“Epilogue” perhaps means impossible to follow. Abercrombie begins with flutish delicacy, and then is in full-span sitar mode. Feldman comes into this Indo-Abercrombie fusion with his fiddle playing phrases on alto flute. Then it changes even as his hands are on it, and is all lightness and feathers and—having become a lark—ascending.


Are the last two titles themselves worth the price of the CD? There is a North American accent, but the music is generically not remote from the 44 duos of Bartok it samples. I did actually prefer the previous Abercrombie-Feldman ensemble with Dan Wall’s wholly sinless Hammond organ and Adam Nussbaum’s drums, for a greater variety and liveliness of music. The current quartet do get a shade too engrossed here. However: when they’re good they’re very very good; and when they’re very very very good they’re unbelievable.

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By Christopher Orman
21 Jun 2004
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