One of the most striking, distinctive characteristics of John Abercrombie’s guitar tone is its lithe suppleness. Listen to hundreds of jazz guitarists, and you’ll find most attempt to capture the standard octave chord style of their predecessors, of honking rather than sliding; a style which can be attributed to the late great guitarist Barney Kessell. Players like Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, and John Abercrombie reveal jazz’s more wide-ranging, sophisticated sensibilities by implementing and infusing soundscapes with texture and aural tropes to craft images of listless travelers searching wide open heartland plains.
Because of this, Abercrombie’s music has a conspicuous classical chamber quality. Not in a third stream way, but in how his small ensembles always react with each other, moving and interacting with a well-planned purpose. Which, if the academics that ponder and redact such definitions do so accurately, would actually make Abercrombie’s music not “like” chamber music, but the paragon of it.
The inclusion of violinist Mark Feldman — who has played with Uri Caine in his jazz/classical/chamber fusions of Gustav Mahler and Wagner — for Abercrombie’s latest release, Class Trip, only helps clarify the classical music infusion. Covering Bela Bartok’s poignant “Soldier’s Song” and tracking the album in suite style doesn’t hurt either.
But these are mere formalities, expectations. The music on Class Trip is a living breathing entity, marked by temerity and darkness, calm and cerebral contortions. In particular, it creeps; it moves slowly with a visual approach of brume and bogs, Abercrombie and Feldman’s leads stretching to cover more measures. Only Joey Baron’s drums (as he has done with Marc Ribot) and Marc Johnson’s bass fill in the spots, allowing the sweeping sarabands to move.
As such, the music merely insinuates ideas, and thus eschews pinning the tail on the metaphoric donkey. Middle Eastern strains inform the opening “Dansir”, which moves into the hushed, instrumental conversations of “Risky Business”. A feeling of loss arises, a sort of sense of disassociation, as Abercrombie’s guitar and tones, especially on “Risky Business”, recall the same broken sensibilities of Bill Frisell’s best music. Beauty informs these places, but they aren’t the definition of beauty. Celerity has been ridden from the players’ dictionary, with only a few weak synonyms cropping up in Mark Feldman’s violin and Joey Baron’s brush strokes.
With the tarrying movement, the tracks start to fuse together, their meaning being defined by what comes before and after. The brisk walking of Mark Feldman’s Venuti-styled violin on “Descending Grace” then speeds up in conjunction with Joey Baron’s desire to push and prod, becoming accented only because of the previous languid lax. Baron sounds agitated, wanting to move from the Middle East and slowness that started the album to his home of New York. Abercrombie comps in the background, sweating a bit, waiting for Feldman to finish his passionate conversation about pizza and a three-car wreck in Times Square. Then Abercrombie starts matching Feldman’s lines, trying to get his comments in. The duo match, melding for several minutes before the electric guitar bends and takes over. Baron, now with some electronics at the fore, pushes even harder, with Marc Johnson now the one adding his sense of self into the proceedings. Like a film, the plot line has advanced, the protagonist vetting some sophisticated documents, only to be countermanded by his superiors. Something has being going on, Feldman’s reintroduced off-kilter lines telling a tale of deceit and uncertainty. Even with such synecdoches, there are standard familiar passages. “Illinoise” has a classic bebop quality, even with some of the antiphonal stabs made by Feldman and Baron, as does the beautiful, even arguably lachrymose ballads “Excuse My Shoes”, “Jack and Betty”, and the title track. Making these moments original is simply Abercrombie and his cadre’s amazing litheness. They pull and prod the compositions, opening them up for the spacious interactions accustomed to classical music while keeping the minor based extemporizations of great jazz in tact — much like Frisell’s brilliant early work on ECM, and just as essential.