John Abercrombie: The First Quartet

In the late 1970s, John Abercrombie saw the writing on the wall and was determined not to be just another guitarist with chops. He turned to some very talented colleagues and emerged with three strong albums, collected in a new box.
John Abercrombie
The First Quartet

As the 1970s came to a close, jazz fusion was running its course and John Abercrombie, a self-acknowledged John McLaughlin clone, was really coming into his own. His journey had really begun when he’d signed to ECM in 1975 for the Timeless LP, but by late 1978, when he took to the studio with old Berklee College of Music pals George Mraz (bass) and Peter McDonald (drums), plus pianist Richie Beirach, he was about to set down a series of records that would further establish him in the world of jazz. They also remarkably sound new today, more than 35 years after their release.

Handsomely bound in a box by the world class ECM label (which was also responsible for the first issue of each), Arcade (1979), Abercrombie Quartet (1980) and M (1981) feature superior compositions from Beirach and Abercrombie and even Mraz on a few occasions. Abercrombie was still a budding composer at this point, having really only begun writing in earnest a few years before. That’s somewhat surprising given the excellent material he wrote for Arcade, namely the title track and the equally impressive “Paramour”. The latter doesn’t just open the album; it also sets a kind of tone for the recordings that are to come.

Abercrombie’s command of his instrument and the quartet’s command of the material is immediately apparent. He’d been playing with the mandolin guitar as well as some accomplished acoustic material that influenced the proceedings here. Listening to this, you’d be hard pressed to hear a guy who was as deeply ensconced in the hallowed halls of fusion; this is closer to the vision Abercrombie was developing for himself and for his band. And, for the most part, the role of the band is clear throughout.

There are some whispers of a tentativeness to the Arcade sessions and without a doubt, a group of players about to make their debut would have to spend some time sniffing each other out. But that doesn’t come across as the dominant impression of the record. Instead, it’s a largely relaxed and mostly confident affair that perfectly sets the template for the sophomore release.

There, “Blue Wolf”, “Dear Rain” and “Foolish Dog” provide glimpses of Abercrombie’s continued evolution as a composer and his adeptness with crafting melodies and capturing moods. Beirach is also credited with three numbers, including the nine-minute “Madagascar”, which is really his best work here and maybe the best work from the whole unit. That was a precious balance the group struck here and that they were sensitive to each other in the laying process is one of the things that makes this the best album of the three.

M suffers somewhat when you compare it to its predecessors and maybe some of that falls on the sequencing. The record opens with three white hot numbers (Abercrombie’s amazing “Boat Song” and the title track plus Beirach’s “What Are The Rules”), then meanders its way through the rest, closing with Mraz’s “Pebbles”. Taken individually, these are still strong compositions and the playing is still stellar more often than not, but the record never hangs together as well as it might have otherwise.

Collecting these here together for the first time, listeners can get a real sense of the incredible journey this unit embarked on in that time. Stellar liner notes from John Kelman and ECM’s trademark packaging make this an experience worth having.

RATING 7 / 10