John Abercrombie Quartet: 39 Steps

When the personnel on a record include John Abercrombie, Marc Copland, Drew Gress and Joey Baron, expectations are high. 39 Steps provides many nice moments when lyricism emerges from the interface of Abercrombie’s guitar and Copland’s piano, like ice crystallizing. But this is a curious project, so languid it often feels listless.

The problem is not lack of trust among the players. Abercrombie and Copland have played together occasionally for 40 years, and both have employed Gress and Baron in their bands. But Abercrombie has not recorded as a leader for ECM with a pianist since the mid-1980s. It is striking how different an Abercrombie album sounds when another chordal instrument is present, operating in an overlapping tonal range. There is little open musical space. Abercrombie’s flickering aural imagery, normally incisive, is softened, even blurred, by Copland’s overlays.

The real problem is an insufficiency of energy and urgency. There are six originals by Abercrombie and two by Copland, mostly similar quiet melodic gestures, not captivating in themselves, elaborated slowly and cautiously. The absence of contrast, in tone, mood and tempo, limits this music.

Abercrombie intends a cinematic theme. One track is “Greenstreet” and four are titles of Alfred Hitchcock films: “Vertigo,” “Spellbound,” “Shadow of a Doubt” and “39 Steps.” Your critic confesses bafflement as to how this music, so lacking in tension, connects to Hitchcock movies.

The two best pieces break free of the album’s static equilibrium. “Shadow of a Doubt” is a collective improvisation in which each of the band’s four articulate voices create independently and juxtapose themselves into a stark, intriguing design. The last track is a perversely halting, teasing, piecemeal reconstitution of “My Melancholy Baby.” What it is doing here is unclear, but its dry wit is invigorating. The large potential of this quartet is barely tapped on 39 Step/.