John Abercrombie. The First Quartet
(ECM 475 9435. CD review by Jon Turney)
There’s a lot of talk in jazz about finding your voice. This triple CD set revisits a marvellous brief spell – less than two years cover all these recordings – when the great guitarist John Abercrombie found his.
By the late 1970s he had played a lot of fusion, and made some arresting albums for ECM – especially in the trio with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, Gateway, which some of us heard as the finest of all power trios. But it was time, he felt, to get back to jazz with his own working band. The results, long unavailable before this mid-price reissue, show what a fine band he brought together. He met drummer Peter Donald and bassist George Mraz at Berklee, and classically adept pianist and fellow Berklee graduate Richie Beirach in New York. The quartet’s three studio dates, Arcade, Abercrombie Quartet and M, are now presented in one box, with a 12 page essay from John Kelman – a welcome addition to the unadorned style ECM retains for current releases.
The three together have much the same sound, with guitarist and pianist splitting composing credits roughly equally, save for a single Mraz piece closing the third set. The results are as attractive as you would expect from the collective reputations they now enjoy. – Abercrombie shows all the qualities that have illuminated dozens of recordings since, with a flow of invention, mastery of dynamics, and a kind of melodic insistence that makes him the most listenable of contemporary guitarists. His exploration here of the electric mandolin guitar often limits the tonal range to the upper register, especially on the first two of the three discs, but his clarity and beauty of articulation make up for it. Many of the pieces fall into the mid-tempo lope he favours, but there are rockers enough for variety.
These is much more to appreciate here than the early work of a fretboard master, though. Mraz is formidable throughout, and Peter Donald – since retired from music – is a thoroughly interactive drummer who rises to the level you would expect supporting a leader who had been keeping company with DeJohnette. Much of the strongest playing comes from the under-rated Beirach, who shows a wonderfully close rapport with the guitarist across all three discs and contributes enough improvisations of his own to make up strong a piano trio set.
He is also quoted at length in Kelman’s essay, which relates how much he and Abercrombie loved each other’s playing, and has interesting things to say about Manfred Eicher’s contribution to the way the performances were shaped in the studio. This band toured heroically, and it is a shame there aren’t any official live recordings. But their sense of shared discovery captured on these discs is well worth revisiting.