Forgotten series: John Abercrombie – Class Trip (2004)

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Quite a few years back I had a discussion with a close friend about a certain ‘famous’ musician. I say ‘famous’ because the musician’s name has been dropped from both of our memories (no doubt deposited behind the “memory sofa”, where your head tosses once ‘important’ bits of information, like synaptic lost socks).

That’s OK though, as the truly important part of the conversation had to do with how the musician (a guitarist, that much I do remember) felt about his play when it approached the highest level: at the point where it seemed like the music, not the player, was in control. When that magic point was achieved, he said that his hands felt “like water.” Like water … an interesting concept. One that has stuck with me for a very long time.

Now, of course I have no idea if John Abercrombie has ever thought of his hands as feeling like water. But I’m sure that musicians of his caliber have made frequent visits to ‘The Zone.’ When listening to jazz/improvised music I sometimes wonder how the players arrived at that destination. Were they just riding on top of the predefined set of chord changes? Were they listening intently and improvising off of a particular instrument? Is it a collective improvisation? All of the above?

These questions can be applied to little bits of a tune as well as the entire composition.

So … as I’m listening to John Abercrombie’s Class Trip, the questions begin to form. A great example of what sounds like “all of the above” comes during the pensive “Risky Business.” The introduction features Abercrombie laying out a simple chord solo to which Mark Feldman adds a gorgeous melody on violin. Like a musical holograph, the verse materializes as Mark Johnson’s bass and Joey Baron’s cymbals complete the rest of the ‘structure.’ Obviously, this tune is built on a set of chord changes, but it’s heavily decorated by a continuous undercurrent of subtle improvisation.

I never thought these words would come out of my mouth: this group is better than Gateway, Abercrombie’s ‘supergroup’ with Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. I’ve always thought of Gateway as the perfect settings for Abercrombie’s style of guitar playing. Certainly it’s pretty tough to find fault with either of those two giants. But there’s just something about Abercrombie’s lineup here (which was the same as on 2002’s Cat N Mouse).

It may just be Joey Baron’s ‘fault.’ While I don’t usually like to play favorites (as in “this rates a 7, that rates an 8.5”), Baron’s deft touch on the cymbals and brushes out-nuances DeJohnette on this particular record. Check out the clever “Illinoise.” The interplay between Abercrombie’s initial arpeggios and Baron’s kit magic is just brilliant. By the time Johnson and Feldman enter the scene, I’m pretty sure that I have entered the zone!

The rest of Class Trip is equally as interesting, with many solo, duet and trio sections forming on top of the song’s basic foundation. Also present is ECM’s familiar slightly ‘wet’ and reverb-laden sound. It’s unfortunate that some have labeled Manfred Eicher’s label as ‘mellow’ or ‘laid back,’ as they really do miss the point: bringing together musician, composition and personality to (hopefully) create something unique and ‘greater’ than the sum of its components.

If that ain’t part of “The Zone,” I don’t know what is.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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