As a bandleader, guitarist John Abercrombie has always been something of a modernist. There is something forward-looking about his albums, from Timeless, his 1974 debut that put a fusion-style twist on the organ-trio format, to his recent chamber-style quartet work with the violinist Mark Feldman. Overall, his recorded work does not bring to mind a man who spends much time thinking about the past.
So it’s a bit of a surprise to read, in the liner notes to Within a Song, that his latest album is a tribute to the jazz of the early sixties. Surprising not simply because nostalgia is a region his music rarely visits, but also because that era is one jazz conservatives have sanctified as the last good part of jazz history – before Miles went electric; before free jazz tossed aside tonality and swing; before rock and soul and disco pushed jazz off the pop charts for good.
Fortunately, it’s only possible to be alarmed by the liner notes if you haven’t heard the music, because what Abercrombie offers here is as forward-looking as ever, even if it is meant as a tribute to the giants of his youth.
It helps that this latest version of his quartet pairs him with Joe Lovano, a tenor saxophonist whose recent work has focused on finding ways to keep traditional jazz from sounding so, well, traditional. Lovano understands that jazz improvisers developed such distinctive musical vocabularies to say something new, and he honours tradition by adding to that vocabulary. It’s an approach that dovetails perfectly with Abercrombie’s. Take Interplay, a Bill Evans tune composed for a 1962 quintet session. Abercrombie and company take the title fairly literally, opening with an intertwining statement by the guitarist and saxophonist and then proceeding to give maximum latitude to the rest of the band. Although bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Barron mostly avoid playing straight time, there’s a subtle sense of swing to the playing. And though it has none of the bluesy cool that marked Evans’s original recording, it pays respect.
Within a Song is full of such sly tributes, from the title tune – which folds the guitarist’s own composition into the standard Without a Song – to the wonderfully songful take on Ornette Coleman’s Blues Connotation. It’s welcome relief from the usual clichés that beset tribute albums.
The past may be a foreign country, as Pinter had it, but Abercrombie at least does things differently there.
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