John Abercrombie was one of the key jazz guitarists to emerge in the mid-’70s, along with John Scofield and Pat Metheny, and an Abercrombie ECM album has been a steady occurrence since his signature fusion classic Timeless from 1975.
Lately, he’s been in a acoustic quartet mood on his ECM records, but the “John Abercrombie Quartet” means something quite different this time because there isn’t, say, a saxophone (Joe Lovano) or violin (Mark Feldman) to go along with bass and drums. This time, a piano is sharing the front line with Abercrombie, something that hadn’t been in an Abercrombie-led recording for the label for a very long time.
Alto saxophonist-turned-pianist Marc Copland and Abercrombie go back to their days together in the seminal rock/jazz group Dreams at the turn of the 70s and played together in Chico Hamilton’s band way back when, too. Copland joins the guitarist for a long overdue reunion, dubbed 39 Steps.
Carrying over a stellar rhythm section in Drew Gress (bass) and Joey Baron (drums), Abercrombie makes Copland a near co-leader, including two of his compositions and giving him plenty of maneuvering room as both an accompanist and soloist.
Copland, as the extra chordal voice, brings something else to the proceedings, and that’s enriched harmonics. 39 Steps is one of the most mellifluously pleasing and esoteric Abercrombie records in a while, during a string of records when he’s already been in a particularly melodic state of mind.
“Vertigo” makes that clear right from the start, as it has a lilting melody that Abercrombie and Copland carry out together in tandem, amplifying its charms. Copland’s “LST” is one of many tastefully swinging numbers, and Abercrombie’s cushioned licks resemble Metheny’s though he slightly predates him. Copland’s playing is in a similar style adapted on the piano.
“Bacharach” doesn’t’ seem to draw any connection to the legendary pop composer apart from a vague similarity to “What’s New Pussycat?”, and there’s a turn to a minor key in the bridge. But it’s a gorgeous strain. Both of the front lines soloists wisely take a “less is more” tact, as does Gress on his own solo.
“Spellbound” is a darker mood, where Abercrombie and Gress state a thematic line together. The moderately threatening demeanor is underscored by Baron dropping lots of little bombs that push against Abercrombie’s delicate phrasings. For “39 Steps” the leader pairs with Copland for the theme this time. Built up from a single chord, Abercrombie adds comely complexion from his single line narratives and Copland serves up a meaningful mixture of block chords and arpeggios. Abercrombie dusts off his old 70s chestnut “Ralph’s Piano Waltz” and reworks it into “Another Ralph’s,” which is very nearly as great, thanks to some superb group dynamics.
No covers are performed until the very end. Save for the brief collective improv “Shadow Of A Doubt,” “Melancholy Baby” ends up being the most abstract undertaking of the album. The melody is unmistakable but Baron is allowed to frolic and Gress isn’t necessarily going at a steady pace, either. That the parts intentionally don’t fit together effectively deconstructs the song.
Subtleties and veteran musicianship abound, making 39 Steps a triumph of unassuming beauty.
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39 Steps goes on sale Ocotber 1, from ECM Records.