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John Abercrombie’s forward-thinking nostalgia

Ambercrombie’s sly tributes are a welcome relief from the usual clichés that beset tribute albums.

4 out of 4 stars

Within a Song
John Ambercrombie Quartet

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.

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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.


Fragrant World
Yeasayer (Secretly Canadian)
2 stars

Yeasayer's metamorphosis has been described in terms of embracing pop influences; pop should sue for defamation. Although their third album Fragrant World resembles Top 40 more than the five-piece Brooklyn band's Latin- and African-music-influenced previous incarnation, no major-label Svengali would back a thin slice of dubstep-lite like Damaged Goods. Tracks such as Henrietta suggest they're not above writing actual songs with choruses, but most of the time, the beats are forgettable and the lyrics impenetrable ("She's throwing her clothes away / Says she needs the added space"). For all critics' whining about, say, Auto-Tune abuse in chart pop, there's more inventiveness in one Usher single than in Yeasayer's last two albums combined. Dave Morris

Dead Can Dance (PIAS)
3.5 stars

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Given the resurrection implied in their name, it shouldn't be a surprise to find Dead Can Dance kicking again after a 16-year absence. What does amaze is how vital the music remains. As always, the sound is a heady fusion of East and West, old and new – folding Arabic modalities into lush, orchestral soundscapes (for instance, on Kiko) or using artfully programmed synths to conjure an ancient Greek army on the march (Anabasis). Those who adored the duo in its late-eighties heyday will thrill at Lisa Gerrard's serpentine vocals and vivid orchestrations, though newer listeners may blanch at the Jim Morrison aspects of Brendan Perry's baritone croon. J.D. Considine

The Midsummer Station
Owl City (Universal Republic)
1 star

I Kissed a Girl; Party Rock; Umbrella: The right to claim "song of the summer" can bear star-making rewards. Naming his fourth album The Midsummer Station, Adam Young – Owl City – is clearly after his huge hit, abandoning Ben Gibbard-affectations and breaking through with 2009's champagne-fizzy Fireflies. He can boast a 2012 contender, but the catchy, sun-kissed Good Time, featuring Carly Rae Jepsen, is actually worsened by being surrounded by more of Owl City's music. Over 12 tracks, the synths become nauseatingly shimmery and the sameness obnoxious, and the experience becomes like the painful, agitating buzz of drinking way too much coffee. Adrian Lee

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