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John Abercrombie

THE THIRD QUARTET • John Abercrombie

It is not an exaggeration to say that listening to guitarist John Abercrombie in the Seventies taught me much of what I know about what makes great music. Not just guitar, or even jazz, but quality music in general. I was lucky enough to see him with drummer Chico Hamilton at CBGB's--before it became a punk club--in a band that included Glen Moore and Ralph Towner from the band Oregon. Bassist Moore and Abercrombie played a free duet: no chord changes, nothing pre-arranged--just play. The level of interplay was so high and the internal logic of their improvising so strong that when they stopped on the same note, with no visual or audible signal to each other, it was as obvious to the audience as to them that this was where the music needed to end. Over the course of many other performances and records through the Seventies and Eighties, Abercrombie has taught me about swing, sound, and the excitement of going for something new each time you play.

John in '76

John Abercrombie came up through the jazz ranks during a golden era of modern jazz guitar; Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, John Scofield and Mike Stern were all on the scene at more or less the same time. If he is not quite the guitar icon that these four have become, it may partially be due to his loyalty to ECM records, which has been guilty of spotty distribution over the years. Fortunately the label's distribution is at a highpoint these days and you will have no trouble finding The Third Quartet, by the guitarist's current crew of Joey Baron on drums, Mark Feldman on violin, and Marc Johnson on bass--and find it you should.

In addition to a reputation for spectacular sound, ECM has been known for fostering a certain kind of chamber jazz: as influenced by modern classical music as it is by Afro-American jazz. This quartet offers an excellent example of that style. Giving the lie to detractors who claim that the genre doesn't swing, Ornette Coleman's "Roundtrip" comes out of the gate swinging, driven by Baron's exquisite cymbal work. Elsewhere, Abercrombie's originals also swing, albeit in a free, stop-start fashion, with the swing as often implied as stated; all four musicians are so aware of the time that none need continuously define it. On tunes like "Number 9" and "Vingt Six," Feldman's classical technique helps bring out the romanticism inherent in Abercrombie's compositions, while on the elegiac "Elvin" he demonstrates a more jazz-like tone, befitting a tribute to a jazz legend like Elvin Jones.

Like jazz, chamber music is a form of small group interaction, something at which every member of this quartet excels.  Having interacted now for three records (hence the CD's name) these musicians have an almost telepathic level of interplay that blurs the distinctions between composition, arrangement and improvisation. A seamless melding of beautiful melodies, driving rhythm, and fearless experimentation makes for a terrific listening experience. The Third Quartet demonstrates most of things that I learned about music from John Abercrombie in the Seventies, and offers an opportunity for you to learn them as well.
• Michael Ross

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