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John Abercrombie: The First Quartet

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With the release of The First Quartet, John Abercrombie’s entire ECM catalog is finally on CD. This box set collects Arcade, Abercrombie Quartet and M, the three albums the guitarist recorded with pianist Richie Beirach, bassist George Mraz and drummer Peter Donald from 1978 to 1980. The music skirts the line between refined and daring, between structure and adventure. Though it is exceedingly pleasant, it retains an element of risk.

All but one of the compositions belong to Abercrombie or Beirach (the final tune is Mraz’s), and they feel like pieces of a whole. The tunes are built on simple motifs, but there is no head-solos-head structure to be found. The musicians solo within group performance, and nobody tries to kill it with a mind-blowing, spotlight-stealing performance. The music is spacious; it breathes. Abercrombie and Beirach play four or five notes where they could play 20. Rhythm is often rubato.

It is tempting to say that the musicians grow more comfortable with one another through the progression of the sessions, but they seem at ease from the beginning. “Arcade,” the first song on the first disc, is among their strongest, nearly 10 minutes of group improvisation built entirely on a ridiculously simple (and catchy) phrase. Abercrombie states it, then he solos while Mraz states it, and then they all let go, everyone soloing while the theme is only implied. “Blue Wolf” is constructed in the same vein, with a similar theme, more speed and a bit of swing. “Dear Rain” is loose and impressionistic, as Abercrombie and Beirach layer fluid strokes over an almost formless rhythm. “Boat Song” unfolds languorously over 10 minutes, Beirach and Mraz turning its two-bar motif into a thickening groove. While these albums aren’t in the same tier as Abercrombie’s greatest-1975’s Gateway, or his latest, 39 Steps-The First Quartet is a must-own for fans.

Originally Published