ECM Records has more than its share of unique guitarists—Pat Metheny, Ralph Towner, Steve Tibbetts, Terje Rypdal, and Bill Frissell spring instantly to mind. That list is most certainly incomplete without the name of John Abercrombie, whose musical output is the subject of the label’s :rarum XIV.
Selected by Abercrombie himself, the tracks on this disc move chronologically through Abercrombie’s career at ECM, including tracks from his career as a leader, as a collaborator and session musician, and as a member of the collective trio Gateway. “Timeless,” the opener, comes from the album of the same name, Abercrombie’s first as leader. Working in a trio format with Jan Hammer on synthesizer and organ and Jack DeJohnette at the drums, Abercrombie produces a meditative track with a lengthy opening section that builds on a deep synth drone before morphing into a bubbling gothic riff that grows ever more insistent with repetition. This track ably demonstrates that in pure form, both jazz fusion and progressive rock shared many elements and created a promising area of investigation for musicians of both genres. The difference between what prog rock could have been and what it became is the difference between the grandiose ambitions of bands like Yes and ELP and the infinitely more musical statements made by musicians of the caliber of Abercrombie, Hammer, and DeJohnette.
“Sorcery I” is from the first Gatewayalbum, released in 1975. With Dave Holland on bass and DeJohnette again playing drums, Abercrombie sounds like Hendrix with a metal edge. With a rhythm section that can follow and challenge him, Abercrombie turns in a classic electric guitar performance that makes one wonder why he didn’t get as much press as John McLaughlin. The CD’s penultimate track, “Homecoming” is by the same trio in 1994, after they had not played together in many years. Abercrombie utilizes a different electric guitar sound, but the overall interplay between these accomplished musicians is as delicate and pleasing as ever.
Abercrombie’s acoustic work is featured on both the duet with Ralph Towner “Avenue” and on “Memoir,” on which Abercrombie overdubs himself on acoustic guitar. On the duet, Abercrombie and Towner fit together perfectly, and the album from which it comes, Sargasso Sea, has proven itself as a classic guitar duet album. “Memoir” is reflective, and Abercrombie manages to leave a great deal of open space in his playing, even with the overdubbing.
The next group of tracks feature Abercrombie with groups of varying sizes. On “Stray” he plays mandolin guitar with a quartet comprised of pianist Richard Beirach, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Peter Donald. This group is perhaps the most traditional sounding jazz group on the CD, which is strange considering that it still sounds very much like Abercrombie and maintains its identity as an ECM recording quite well. Beirach is well known for his work with saxophonist Dave Liebman, particularly as part of Liebman’s Lookout Farm, and he and Abercrombie also worked with Liebman on his Drum Ode album. Here he is the perfect accompanist and foil to Abercrombie’s angular guitar lines. “Big Music” finds Abercrombie playing Pat Metheny-sounding electric guitar with bassist Marc Johnson (with whom he has continued to work) and drummer Peter Erskine. This cut comes from the album November, one of Abercrombie’s essential recordings. Even though Abercrombie has mellowed a bit from his early days, he still brings a lot of energy to bear on this track.
The final track on this middle section of Abercrombie’s selected recordings is “Ma Belle Helene” from tumpeter Kenny Wheeler’s album The Widow In the Window, recorded in 1990. The ensemble is a stellar one: Wheeler and Abercrombie are joined by pianist John Taylor, bassist Dave Holland and Erskine on drums. The lyrical Wheeler gains a nice edge from Abercrombie’s guitar work, and the rhythm section is one that fits together by virtue of having worked together in various combinations a great deal.
The final tracks or this :rarum edition show how Abercrombie has continued to revisit his past even as he grows as a musician and finds new ways of communicating with listeners. “Carol’s Carol” goes back to the electric guitar-organ-drums format heard on Timeless, except this time the organist is Dan Wall and the drummer Adam Nussbaum. The style has changed a bit, edging further toward organ-trio jazz while retaining a modern sound, but the same inspiration with the format is there. “Homecoming” is from the 1994 Gateway reuinion of the same name. The collection’s final track, “Convolution” comes from Abercrombie’s 2000 release Cat ‘n’ Mouse on which he added violinist Marc Feldman to his already excellent combo of bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron. The piece bristles with free jazz energy, but in many ways it also harkens back to the early fusion days of Mahavishnu Orchestra.
For anyone interested in the guitar’s movement from the modern jazz aesthetic into high-energy progressive rock and freely improvised music, John Abercrombie is an artist whose work must be explored, and this entry in the ECM :rarum series enables listeners to do just that.