Wednesday, April 18, 2018

John Abercrombie & Ralph Towner - 1982 - Five Years Later

John Abercrombie & Ralph Towner 
1982 
Five Years Later


01. Late Night Passenger 9:54
02. Isla 6:24
03. Half Past Two 4:26
04. Microtheme 3:39
05. Caminata 3:01
06. The Juggler's Etude 7:29
07. Bumabia 9:50
08. Child's Play 4:51

Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar, Twelve-String Guitar, Mandoguitar – John Abercrombie
Twelve-String Guitar, Classical Guitar – Ralph Towner

Recorded March 1981 at Talent Studio, Oslo


John Abercrombie is unique among guitarists in that whenever he becomes enraptured his sound becomes neither louder nor more pronounced but becomes somehow mysterious, liberated. Ralph Towner, on the other hand, revels in the crackling ruptures that so characterize his playing. Yet these roles seem reversed in this follow-up to the duo’s Sargasso Sea. A far more fragile carnation than its predecessor, it seems to forego the usual bag of tricks in favor of something more, as the album’s title would imply, reflective. This is especially apparent in the three improvisations with which the set list is dotted, and nowhere more so than in “Late Night Passenger,” where Abercrombie’s laddered filaments provide stunning berth for the other’s muted, jangling starlight.

As for composed pieces, Towner offers three, Abercrombie two. Among the former’s, the all-acoustic “Half Past Two” is a vibrating rib cage of biographical energies, and the most comely track on the album. The attraction continues with “Caminata” and on through the whimsy of “The Juggler’s Etude.” Abercrombie’s “Child’s Play” pairs electric and classical for a complementary sound, Towner’s shallower accents the caps on Abercrombie’s resonant stalks. Child’s play it may be in name, but in execution it is anything but. Yet it is in “Isla” that the reverie reaches new depths, the musicians’ negotiation of lead and backing effortlessly egalitarian. Such reciprocity is the keystone that keeps this arch from crumbling.

John Abercrombie & Ralph Towner - 1976 - Sargasso Sea

John Abercrombie & Ralph Towner 
1976 
Sargasso Sea


01. Fable 8:40
02. Avenue 5:16
03. Sargasso Sea 3:57
04. Over And Gone 2:46
05. Elbow Room 5:10
06. Staircase 6:20
07. Romantic Descension 3:15
08. Parasol 5:24

Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar – John Abercrombie
Twelve-string Guitar, Classical Guitar, Piano – Ralph Towner

Recorded May, 1976 at Talent Studio, Oslo


It was often raining when I woke during the night, a light capricious shower, dancing playful rain, or hushed muted, growing louder, more persistent, more powerful, an inexorable sound. But always music, a music I had never heard before.
–Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

Given the contrasting but strikingly compatible talents of John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner, this album was bound to happen sooner or later. The aptly titled “Fable” best describes what these two musicians achieve together, for theirs is a tale that sounds as if it were written long ago, coalescing out of life’s improvisations into a memorable narrative. Its pairing of Towner’s 12-string with Abercrombie’s electric represents the duo in its most melodically satisfying comfort zone. We get more of the same in the title track, an uncertain travail with hints of soliloquies caressing our ears from either side, and in the relatively explosive moments of “Elbow Room.” Abercrombie opts for an echo effect here, the pulse of which dictates the piece’s rhythmic trajectory. And while I do think the effect weakens the track as its pathos becomes clearer, Towner compensates its contrivance with some flamenco-like body taps. “Staircase” features classical guitar and Abercrombie’s more directly amplified electric in the album’s most carefully realized blend of sound and circumstance. Towner then leaps to his 12-string amid Abercrombie’s own ascendant doodling. A few all-acoustic tracks enliven the mix, of which “Romantic Descension” is the loveliest. The final track, “Parasol,” is a triangular affair between 12-string, electric guitar, and Towner’s overdubbed piano.

Sargasso Sea is an enchanting reverie that has stood the test of time, and with an attractive patina to show for it. Like a kiss in deepening twilight, it loses its physical shape and becomes pure sensation, lost in the placation of a distant slumber.

John Abercrombie - 1984 - Night

John Abercrombie
1984
Night


01. Ethereggae 8:23
02. Night 4:57
03. East 4:30
04. Look Around 8:57
05. Believe You Me 7:40
06. Four On One 7:20

Drums – Jack DeJohnette
Guitar – John Abercrombie
Keyboards – Jan Hammer
Tenor Saxophone – Michael Brecker

Recorded April 1984 at Powerstation, New York
Mixed at Rainbow Studio, Oslo


As its cover indicates, Night gives us a colorful, collage-like portrait of John Abercrombie, who jumps here into the urban deep end with smoky club atmospheres and tight jams. It’s a joy to see the guitarist working with Jan Hammer again, and the inclusion of Mike Brecker on tenor and Jack DeJohnette on drums make for a winning formula. Hammer adds a particular spike to this sonic punch, competently filling the session’s lack of bass while also fleshing out the production with an evocative sweep. Between the idiomatic blend of “Ethereggae” and the Timeless heat distortion of “3 East,” his billowing keys give Brecker more than enough room to show off his chops (he has hardly sounded better). This date isn’t all fun and games, however, for the rain-slicked streets of “Look Around” give us pause for reflection. Hammer reignites things in “Believe You Me,” which despite being the most straightforward track compositionally sports Brecker’s most uninhibited solo yet. The band saves the best for last with “Four On One,” which draws another ring of fire in an enthralling closer. DeJohnette gets his moment in the sun here as well.

Though something of an blip in the Abercrombie back catalogue, Night is far from benign. Aside from the effusive music, what really distinguishes this album is its sound. Another slam-dunk for engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug.

Jan Garbarek - 1981 - Eventyr

Jan Garbarek 
1981
Eventyr


01. Soria Maria 11:32
02. Lillekort 4:56
03. Eventyr 9:14
04. Weaving A Garland 2:11
05. Once Upon A Time 8:59
06. The Companion 5:46
07. Snipp, Snapp, Snute 4:28
08. East Of The Sun And West Of The Moon 8:27

Jan Garbarek tenor and soprano saxophones, flutes
John Abercrombie guitars
Nana Vasconcelos berimbau, percussion, voice

Recorded December 1980 at Talent Studio, Oslo


A strange flute it was! It emitted a note as sustained as the whistle of a steam-engine, but much more powerful. It penetrated through the whole manor, over the gardens, the woods, for miles out into the countryside, and with the sound of it came a great gust of wind roaring.
–From “Everything In Its Right Place” by Hans Christian Andersen (trans. L. W. Kingsland)

Eventyr means “adventure.” Classical listeners may also recognize it as the name of Frederick Delius’s lovely 1917 tone poem, which is often translated as “Once Upon A Time” to underscore its origins in the folk tale collections of Norwegian scholar Peter Christen Asbjørnsen. Here, the name adorns one of Jan Garbarek’s most recondite efforts to date and, like its own “Once Upon A Time,” houses a world of lessons and signs for those willing enough to interpret them. Joined by John Abercrombie and Nana Vasconcelos, he spins a string of seven improvisations, rounded out by a standard, “East Of The Sun And West Of The Moon” (Brooks Bowman), that doesn’t so much end the album as open us to its nebulous center. In that center we encounter swirls of majesty as only he can draw. With almost liquid fire and ever-insightful phrasing, Garbarek brings his deepest considerations to the nearly 12-minute “Sora Maria” that is its primordial soup. His interplay with Abercrombie resolves into a vague continent, where only the playful refractions of “Lillekort” resolve themselves into separate entities. Vasconcelos’s pliancy is the animating skeleton of the title track, in which his gravelly voice and ritualism exudes from every gamelan hit. In “Weaving A Garland,” tenor sax and guitar paint a rolling horizon of vegetation. Such shorter tracks as this and “The Companion” comprise the more potent incantations amid the long-form spells that otherwise dictate the album’s vocabulary. Transcendence comes in the form of “Snipp, Snapp, Snute,” a sparkling menagerie of triangles and wooden flute that works its light into a crepuscular sky. Through it we see in fine detail the inner life of three musicians whose nets run far into the cosmic ocean, where only transformation awaits in the catch.

John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette - 1978 - Gateway 2

John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette
1978
Gateway 2


01. Opening 16:17
02. Reminiscence 4:32
03. Sing Song 6:55
04. Nexus 7:55
05. Blue 8:14

Bass – Dave Holland
Drums, Piano – Jack DeJohnette
Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin – John Abercrombie

Recorded July 1977 at Talent Studio, Oslo


In this era of tawdry sequels, it’s almost difficult to believe that John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette could have surpassed the profundity of 1975’s seminal Gateway. I say “almost” only because each member of this dream trio has yet to let this committed listener down and always comes to the studio bearing a basket overflowing with fresh ideas. Not only do the results of this 1978 follow-up not disappoint, they ascend into their own category.

At first we aren’t sure what to think in the carefully executed half-sleep of the 16-minute “Opening.” Amid tinkling icicles Abercrombie’s guitar wavers above the bass as it gradually forms intelligible words out of the scattered letters with which we are confronted. The process is so intensely organic that we find ourselves being lulled into its speech-like rhythms. As the snare becomes more forthcoming with its intentions, Holland fleshes out its implications with a tantalizing loop, through which Abercrombie hooks his song with a sound that is wiry yet ethereal. Just as engaging in his supportive statements, he provides ornamentation for Holland as DeJohnette rides with fierce precision into a fine solo of his own. The steam of malleted cymbals condenses into the following “Reminiscence.” Holland and Abercrombie blend into a larger instrument in this pensive track that sounds like the acoustic shadow of Pat Metheny’s “Midwestern Night Dream” (see Bright Size Life). “Sing Song” is another dose of milk-and-honey goodness. Wonderfully nuanced drumming here from DeJohnette uplifts even as it placates. Meanwhile, Abercrombie leans back into an ergonomic continuity that soon plateaus into an engaging turn from Holland, whose quintessential bass line in “Nexus” opens the band to a limber display of virtuosity. Abercrombie is again transcendent in this tower of syncopation, from which trails the Rapunzel-like strands of a limitless creative cache. DeJohnette’s piano turns “Blue” into an ending that is as bitter as it is sweet.

For those who haven’t heard this unit’s first album, I recommend doing so before settling into this one. Not because either is “better” than the other, but only because the development between the two is more readily appreciated when experienced chronologically. In any case, Gateway 2 is its own animal that thrives best in the habitat of our appreciation.

John Abercrombie - 1978 - Characters

John Abercrombie 
1978 
Characters


01. Parable 10:38
02. Memoir 3:10
03. Telegram 4:32
04. Backward Glance 4:32
05. Ghost Dance 6:58
06. Paramour 3:49
07. After Thoughts 3:19
08. Evensong 7:35

Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar, Mandolin – John Abercrombie

Recorded November 1977 at Talent Studios, Oslo.


Just four months after the historic Gateway 2 session, John Abercrombie stepped into Oslo’s Talent Studio to record Characters, his first and only solo album for ECM. While the guitarist’s trademark electric lurks here and there, a modified mandolin takes the strongest lead. The album also features about as much acoustic as one is likely to hear from Abercrombie in one sitting. All of this makes for sonic perfection.

At nearly 11 minutes, “Parable” is the longest cut on the album. A plaintive mandolin seems to stretch its strings as Abercrombie adds almost sitar-like cadences until, about halfway through, we realize this is but the stem of an overarching flower, which reveals its full bloom in an acoustic umbrella. With peerless thematic acuity, Abercrombie reconfigures his melodic matrix in “Memoir,” a nostalgic acoustic duet, each channel part of a spontaneous conversation. It is the most fleeting track on the album, but also the most intuitive. Next, Abercrombie transmits a “Telegram” straight into our souls. Like the message of its title, it is formless during transmission, but arrives in tangible form through the advent of technology, of which performance is Abercrombie’s medium of choice. His involuntary humming harmonizes with itself in a subconscious overdubbed chamber choir. “Backward Glance” recalls the title of Steve Kuhn’s classic tune. Dense acoustic chording spins powerful thermals upon which Abercrombie spreads his electric wings, drawing a feathered curtain over our eyes in the final strum. The spindly diversions of “Ghost Dance” percolate like anesthesia through the bloodstream before “Paramour” makes its debut as another acoustic duet (Abercrombie would soon resurrect it at the heart of his first quartet album, Arcade). More of the same awaits us in “After Thoughts,” where every pause feels like a deep breath that is at last exhaled in a luxurious chord. Lastly, through the liquid sheen of “Evensong” we catch visions of ourselves at different ages. After a silence, an acoustic hand opens its fingers wide as one electric swells in accompaniment and the other glides like a stingray for a sublime finish.

The album’s title is a prescient one. In addition to glyphs on a writing surface, “characters” are people, animals, or any other living creature whose desires animate a story. They might also be the traits of those creatures, or even the morals that define their personalities. Here, we encounter all of these and more, threaded ever so genuinely by one musician’s unique sense of space-time. For anyone wishing to peer into the soul behind the sound, let this be your window.

John Abercrombie - 1975 - Timeless

John Abercrombie
1975
Timeless


01. Lungs 12:09
02. Love Song 4:35
03. Ralph's Piano Waltz 4:56
04. Red And Orange 5:24
05. Remembering 4:32
06. Timeless 12:00

Drums – Jack DeJohnette
Guitar – John Abercrombie
Organ, Synthesizer, Piano – Jan Hammer

Recorded June 21, 22, 1974 at Generation Sound Studios, New York


On Timeless, guitarist John Abercrombie spearheads a session with keyboardist Jan Hammer and drummer Jack DeJohnette for a melding of minds in the first degree.

The trio kicks things off in high gear with “Lungs,” a heaping pile of kindling set ablaze by Hammer’s high-octane staccato, DeJohnette’s explosive hi-hat, and Abercrombie’s unusually frenetic fretwork. A sublime energy is maintained throughout and the payoff is supremely satisfying—all the more so for its brevity, as the music suddenly changes avenues just a few minutes in. Hammer relays between organ and synth, keeping the pace (and the funk) through trailing guitar solos that send notes like cosmic fingers flicking galaxies into outer space. The organ smolders quietly in the background before clinching a new groove, which Abercrombie laces with lines flanged just right for the mix. It all ends in a game of musical jump rope, with Abercrombie skipping over the alternation of drums and organ. “Love Song” is true to its name and is the first of two exquisite conversations between piano and acoustic guitar. Just as the organ trailed long rows in the soil of our attention, the piano comes as a welcome rain for our crop and the guitar like the sun that infuses it. This brings us to “Ralph’s Piano Waltz,” a highlight of these six fine offerings. Like the album as a whole, this track is a superlative balancing act. It’s a construct so seamless that if you don’t find your foot tapping during this one, you might want to make sure it’s still attached. The electric leads speak in their respective languages, but also mimic each other along the way. “Red And Orange” is what might result if Bach had survived into the 1970s as a closeted jazz musician, and is another standout in a set of many. “Remembering” is an alluring chain of tableux and the second of the two duets. Abercrombie sustains details the piano seems content to ignore, loosening those threads from their weave. We end with the title track, which builds slowly from a synth drone peppered with guitar musings to a full-on embrace of space.

This evergreen stands tall in the ECM forest. There is no sense of competition, only mutual reveling in a distinctly nuclear sound. One could easily call it fusion, but if anything it is fused with itself, for it has created every element it seeks to combine. Timeless indeed.

John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette - 1975 - Gateway

John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette
1975 
Gateway


01. Back - Woods Song 7:52
02. Waiting 2:09
03. May Dance 11:02
04. Unshielded Desire 4:50
05. Jamala 4:49
06. Sorcery I 10:58

Bass – Dave Holland
Drums – Jack DeJohnette
Guitar – John Abercrombie

Recorded March 1975 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg


With this record, John Abercrombie both repaved and detoured from his staid path. He could hardly have been in finer company, and the combination seems to have fanned all sorts of flames within him. DeJohnette and Holland string an array of tightropes across which Abercrombie balances his way into previously uncharted territory.

“Back-Woods Song” evokes a mood that would come to define some of the later work of Bill Frisell. To be sure, the sound lives up to its name here as it awakens like an alligator poking its head above some swampy surface. Holland solos wonderfully here, after what some have rightly remarked to be a rather “creepy” turn from Abercrombie, ricocheting delightfully off the cymbals. This is very muddy jazz: viscous, opaque, and teeming with unseen life. “Waiting” is essentially a slow trek for bass that ushers us into “May Dance,” in which Abercrombie’s fingers frolic across the fretboard. Thus he brings a clear sense of continuity and of dynamic energy, scraping away at the surface of possibility and peering into its inner depths without fear of censure. The ensuing frenzy of activity resolves into a delicate bass solo, during which Abercrombie takes a much-needed breather. Holland cleverly mimics Abercrombie’s style, underscoring that same cluster concept of note value and melodic ascendency. “Unshielded Desire” is exactly what it claims to be. It starts with a percussive bang like the finale of a fireworks display and Abercrombie runs with all his might to capture every dying spark as it trails in the sky. The music goes around in spirals, flirting with a center it can never reach no matter how far down it goes, until it is like a compass gone haywire in the Bermuda Triangle. Next is “Jamala,” the most downtempo cut on the album. This is a moody masterpiece and a fine lead-in to the magical, epic, and incendiary “Sorcery I,” which rounds out the set.

I actually fell asleep the first three times I tried listening to this record. For whatever reason, its quirky energy seems to have had a soothing effect on me. Odd, seeing as I cannot imagine a more invigorating guitar trio. Abercrombie has such a distinctive sound and it has to do not only with the amplification and choice of instrument (or pairing thereof), but more importantly with the fragmented aesthetic he brings to his playing. Abercrombie is a “sensual” musician—that is, a musician of the senses. He seems to rattle his own bones, bringing to his improvisation a sense of detached wonder. Those looking for the laid-back Abercrombie may find this an unexpected outing. I do think it’s worth taking a chance on, however, as the freer moments herein might very well surprise and inspire. Despite a seemingly haphazard approach, Abercrombie remains tightly knit to the music’s immediacy. His is an electric sound that stays close to its acoustic roots, while Holland’s solos rise and fall, never straying from the core beat, as if strung to DeJohnette’s limbs.

It’s difficult to explain this kind of jazz to someone who has never heard it, and almost as difficult to describe it as someone hearing it for the first time. It is chameleonic music of the highest order. The wealth of possibility represented here in the art of improvisation expands the ear, the mind, and the heart of the listener, cracking the window of one’s worldview open just that much more to reveal the joys of lived experience. And maybe that’s what jazz is all about: experiencing the human spirit and the infinite ways in which it contorts itself to the tune of some intangible creativity.