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Joe Beck & John Abercrombie: Coincidence

A consummate accompanist, versatile pro and ubiquitous studio man who racked up a staggering array of credits through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, Joe Beck is the only guitarist to have recorded with Miles Davis, James Brown, Buddy Rich, Burt Bacharach and Paul Simon. A master of chordal melodies, Beck has also demonstrated a penchant for wailing with distortion-laced lines, going back to his classic fusion album from 1975, Beck/Sanborn. On these two intimate duet recordings, the great guitarist showcases the full scope of his six-string abilities with two very different guitar-playing partners, one a longtime colleague and world-renowned improviser, the other a gifted young upstart appearing on just his second recording.

On Coincidence, Beck and Abercrombie engage in elegantly swinging extrapolations on several jazz standards while also digging into a couple of earthy blues numbers. With Beck panned right and Abercrombie on the left, the two guitars are further distinguished by tone and attack, Beck affecting a brighter, more modernist reverb-soaked sound and steely technique, Abercrombie going for a warmer, old-school jazz tone and a more blunted approach achieved by eschewing a pick and strumming with his thumb, a la Wes Montgomery. Together the two virtuosos spin intricate counterpoint lines on John Carisi’s “Israel” and Abercrombie’s own chamberlike “Vingt-Six.” They disguise the melody on “I Should Care,” “Beautiful Love” and “My Funny Valentine” in myriad abstractions through the changes, eventually revealing the familiar themes on the out choruses. Beck’s “Mikey Likes It” is a raucous electric blues with each player dialing up a touch of distortion for nasty effect, and “All Blues” is handled as a hard-edged blues in 4/4 instead of the customary 3/4 time.

Their take on “My Romance” begins introspectively with elegant counterpoint over a rubato form, then segues to a swinging section with Beck’s chordal melodies coming to the fore. And their mischievous reharmonizations on Ornette Coleman’s “The Turnaround” and Mercer Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” give both bluesy vehicles a playful new feel. While Beck’s single-note solos and chord solos throughout are always tastefully crafted and eminently swinging, Abercrombie’s note choices are so original that he remains a six-string enigma.

On Songs for Singing, Beck’s partner is 28-year-old Lee Barbour, a versatile guitarist from Charleston, S.C., who alternately plays in a Gypsy-jazz group and a modern, postbop quartet called Gradual Lean. Together they offer intriguing twists on jazz standards and familiar tunes by the Beatles, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman. Beck’s role in this duet setting is different from his free-flowing interactions with Abercrombie. Primarily utilizing his patented alto guitar, Beck expertly comps behind Barbour’s melodic lines and fleet-fingered solos while simultaneously playing deep-toned walking basslines, as on “Can’t Get Started,” Coleman’s “Turnaround” and Barbour’s own “Q’s Blues.” The two engage in delicate interplay on two Beatles themes, “Norwegian Wood” and “Michelle,” as well as on a sublime version of “Monk’s Dream.”

Barbour brings some subversive energy to bear with his edgy fretless guitar work on top of Beck’s arpeggiated accompaniment to “Bye Bye Blackbird.” And on a particularly audacious interpretation of “When I Fall in Love,” he plays his fretless ax with distortion pedal set on stun, sounding like a crazed Sonny Landreth on the warpath. Though they may be two generations apart (Beck is 62), these two plectorists demonstrate a winning chemistry on Songs for Singing.

Originally Published