When one thinks of the most innovative guitarists to work in the jazz idiom over the past 30 years, many of whom (Bill Frisell, Terje Rypdal, Pat Metheny) have recorded for ECM, one can't escape the feeling that John Abercrombie is in a class by himself. A superb technician, he is also a very good composer and has managed to put together some superb bands. You could call Abercrombie's latest recording, Cat 'n' Mouse, 'chamber jazz' -- it's a term (not always meant in a complimentary way) that many use to describe the muted, intimate sound of much of the ECM Records catalog. Sometimes the description fits, but in the case of Abercrombie and his accomplices (violinist Mark Feldman, drummer Joey Baron, and bassist Marc Johnson), the intimate tone belies the fierce swinging and forays into free jazz that are the group's stock in trade.
"Convolution", for example, the second track on the disc, has as much furious energy as any piece of highly amplified fusion you might hear. After a free improvisation opening in which Abercrombie and Feldman chase each other up and down scales and utilize some of the non-traditional sonic possibilities of their string instruments, the piece shifts into a bubbling rhythmic cauldron over which the string players both solo and play passages together in a manner that recalls some of the most successful Mahavishnu Orchestra outings. It's all the more surprising coming after the sophisticated swing and delicate group interplay of the waltz opener "A Nice Idea" and preceding the extremely intimate, vaguely Spanish "String Thing".
For Cat 'n' Mouse Abercrombie has abandoned the piano, focusing instead on an intensive string sound utilizing violinist Mark Feldman and bassist Marc Johnson. Feldman augmented Abercrombie's more traditional trio on 1998's Open Land, and now becomes a focal point of the group, providing continuous counterpoint to Abercrombie's deft improvisations. The guitar and violin often function as cat and mouse on this recording, often shifting roles within a piece to create a delightful musical tension. For example, listen to the abstractions traded by Abercrombie and Feldman on "Third Stream Samba", so named because it reminded Abercrombie of some of the original "third stream" music, integrating jazz and classical music, written in the early '60s. Anyone expecting or waiting for the samba rhythm to kick in will be sorely disappointed. "Third Stream Samba" is one of two completely improvised pieces on the disc. If the notion of free jazz worries you or puts you off, don't worry -- Abercrombie and crew handle free improvisation as they do everything else: with open ears and supreme musicianship.
Abercrombie composed "Soundtrack" on piano and considers it a somewhat cinematic piece. It has a gorgeous melodic line and a throbbing yet understated rhythm that keeps it searching for resolution. Here Feldman's playing is particularly beautiful, and Abercrombie turns in one of his best solos of the album. "On the Loose" opens with a well-defined backbeat, certainly unusual on Cat 'n' Mouse, and Abercrombie and Feldman set to work creating an understated fusion sound until around 2:50 in when drummer Joey Baron suddenly shifts to a high-speed jazz tempo, punctuating Feldman's pyrotechnic solo with Elvin Jones-like bursts and tantrums. Once Feldman finishes a drum solo is used to eventually return to the fusion beat and bring the piece to a satisfying conclusion.
"Stop and Go" is a country swing piece that utilizes "time, no changes", a technique in which the beat is well defined but there is no harmonic progression, allowing the improviser harmonic freedom while defining the rhythmic boundaries of expression. Feldman also uses a few things he learned while a session player in Nashville recording with the likes of Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, and Willie Nelson. Abercrombie gives us some angular guitar work tinged with blues.
The final track, "Show of Hands" is another free improvisation that moves from delicate explorations of tonal colors to fierce free-form solos. Late in the piece drummer Baron, who has been providing fiery support throughout throws out his sticks and drums with his bare hands -- which is where the piece gets its title.
Cat 'n' Mouse isn't everyone's cup of tea, to be sure. There's no straightforward blowing session here, nor is there much in the way of guitar heroics or instrumental histrionics. But then, that's just what Abercrombie -- and ECM -- have always promised (and usually deliver): quality music delivered with as little as possible between the artist's conception and the recording you listen to.