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John Abercrombie

Rarum -- Selected Recordings Vol. 14

(ECM; US: 10 Feb 2004; UK: 26 Jan 2004)

Sweet Hair?

In his notes to this selection from his considerable ECM output, the by no means elderly silvertopped guitarist laments the disappearance of dark curls evidenced in photographs of him reproduced in the booklet. The “sweet hair!” he exclaims, though he should be reassured that he doesn’t look quite gnarled in the way the photo with recent partners Adam Nussbaum and Dan Wall suggests.


In that snap, he looks like Grandpappy, which surely can’t have happened in the couple of years since I saw him. In the older photos, he looks like a hippy, a folkie, or a vintage rock guitarist, none of which he is. He has, however, taken a range of musical vocabulary from performers of more trendy and lucrative, musically less ambitious work on his instrument, as developed during his career.


When he appears with organ and drums, you are unlikely to hear “Green Onions” or even Grant Green-John Patton. The organ’s at an entirely other dynamic level, and so is the guitar. A fellow patron at a concert by the trio with Wall and Nussbaum even supposed the p.a. disordered, but the organ was ever that restrained. No bellowing.


The opener, 1974’s “Timeless”, has Jack de Johnette’s drums and Jan Hammer’s organ-synthesizer in new-agey, ethereal mood with a folky sort of influence on the electric guitar. I’m not sure the magical spell is at full hypnotic power for the full 12 minutes, but with more listening I became more enthusiastic.


With Dave Holland’s bass in place of Hammer’s apparatus, the 11 minutes of 1975’s “Sorcery 1” has a prelude prolific in strange noises of a Hendrix sort, which continue once the bass starts laying down its patterns—de Johnette all the while laying about his drum-kit. The guitar’s wild, not noisy, with the same dynamics as elsewhere. John Abercrombie‘s not astonishingly quiet; he plays at a level to be listened to. Holland is very audibly very important. There are passages which sound blues, others gospel—the guitarist goes deeper than stock soul music in this emotional meditation. I could imagine something of the same on a tenor saxophone, as if the jazz repertoire had its centre of focus in that horn’s range.


The duet which follows, between Abercrombie’s acoustic and Ralph Towner’s classical guitar, has some phrases Charlie Byrd could have produced, with a lot more stuff complex both technically and emotionally. “Avenue” is brisk at times, and the relaxation after “Sorcery 1” fairly marked. The interplay is comparable with that on “Memoir”, on which Abercrombie’s acoustic guitar is overdubbed on his playing of what sounds the same instrument. The degree of consonance is astonishing. Detail is laid on detail.


The meditative tendency and freedom from excessive noise extends to the orchestral fullness attained by the marvellous quartet on “Stray” with George Mraz on bass and Richie Beirach’s piano (Peter Donald the pushing not pushy drummer). Beirach’s piano is stunningly lyrical and full, and the Abercrombie Quartet CD from which this is taken has a vast advertisement. I’m restless to hear more of it.


The “mandolin guitar” on Beirach’s “Stray” is replaced by twelve-string-like echoey on “Big Music”, with Peter Erskine’s drums and Marc Johnson’s bass, the latter surging behind Abercrombie in a pacier middle section. Next we have the Kenny Wheeler Quintet in “Ma Belle Helene”, Abercrombie more mainstream with John Taylor’s exemplary piano, nice trumpet-guitar interplay before Abercrombie’s solo, and between it and Wheeler’s beautifully poised statement. Dave Holland also solos, no less lyrically, on bass. This is a wonderfully continuous quintet performance, with a remarkable development rather than sequence of solos. Every one makes sense and carries over from the one which has just preceded it, as does the piano diminuendo after the theme’s restatement by trumpeter and guitarist in unison. Well done, that Abercrombie, in having such splendid musicians to hear alongside him.


Dan Wall’s use of Hammond organ has been a discrete shadowing presence on the couple of Abercrombie quartet gigs I’ve been able to hear live in recent times. Here there’s just the one title with him, and Adam Nussbaum, Wall’s “Carol’s Carol” from the CD When We’re Young (as you still are, Master Abercrombie, despite despair at thatch failure and reference to years in your stage announcements!). Mark Feldman was the other member of that quartet, and turns up on the final title (from an ECM CD with Kenny Wheeler and Joe Lovano on other titles, beside that wondrous four).


By the time we hear Feldman on this CD we’ve had “Carol’s Carol” at the preferred medium tempo, with a nice long solo from Wall in a mainstream performance at one of Abercrombie’s preferred roundabout medium tempi.


We’ve also had “Homecoming”, which, from what I read elsewhere, may be on the Holland CD in this series. Couldn’t they have tossed a coin over which hero got it? Or will this be a different “Homecoming”? This one’s from Gateway, Homecoming, recorded December 1994, almost twenty years after Gateway. Stylistically it puts me in mind of the John Mayer Joe Harriot group, Harriot the great very individual London Jamaican altoist alas long departed, and Mayer still, I believe, active (an Indian classical composer-performer whose Indo-Jazz Fusions had a strong West Indian complement beside the sitar and tabla) . There is a strong Asian and West Indian presence in Holland’s native English Midlands—complete with tenor sax patriarch Andy Hamilton and his jazz dynasty, and his is the motive power behind the Caribbean lilt this little modal theme takes on with at times a great joyous intensity. Beside the 1975 expressive resources of Coltrane-infused rock guitar on other performances, we here have Abercrombie doing a sitar thing, in a performance happily airborne.


On the closer, Joey Baron and his drums join Johnson and Feldman for a decently intense organised jam on Abercrombie’s “Convolution”, the guitarist bluesy and biting, Feldman more intensely wailing than I’ve heard him thus far (I don’t claim comprehensive acquaintance—these guys record rather a lot, and my scholarly thoroughness doesn’t extend to Feldman’s time as a Nashville sessioneer!)


“Convolution” was four years ago, “Homecoming” ten, and the opening “Timeless” nearly enough thirty. Over forty CDs are listed in the booklet, all featuring Abercrombie and just over half under his own name. I couldn’t envy anybody having the task of sorting out any sort of single retrospective CD even as long as this one—only some seconds short of eighty minutes. It’s a sampler, in the English sense (in Germany a CD of three little-recorded bands playing all they ever recorded would be called a “Sampler!”). It indicates tempo and dynamic preferences pretty well maintained by the man, unless with something special in mind. It gives potent evidence of the quality of the Beirach-Mraz-Donald Abercrombie quartet. I think the man is playing better than ever—who cares about hair!—having acquired a sound vocabulary on a par with most hornmen, and done a lot of interesting things with it. ECM, I believe, still put out decently informative material, so that it’s not so hard to see what or who specifically is on this or that disc with Abercrombie. The Rarum series has, among other advantages, that of giving in some cases an excellent sketch-map. Well chosen.


Very well played!

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