Album Remarks & Appraisals:
This 3-CD set, remastered from analog recordings, returns some historically-important material to the catalog, namely the albums Arcade, Abercrombie Quartet and M. This quartet was John Abercrombie's first touring band as a leader and the group in which the guitarist defined some priorities, moving away from a jazz-rock period into a more spacious, impressionistic and original music.
All About Jazz
In his more than thirty year career - almost exclusively with ECM - guitarist John Abercrombie has more often than not confined his formation to smaller groups ranging from solo through quartet. He has been less restricted in the style of music he creates and that diversity is demonstrated with mixed results on The First Quartet. The albums included in the three-disc set are remastered from original ECM analog recordings of Arcade (1979), Abercrombie Quartet (1979) and M (1981). All but unavailable in CD format, these three early quartet outings have been bundled as part of ECM's Old & New Masters collection and represent some early building blocks in Abercrombie's development.
Bearing in mind that The First Quartet represents Abercrombie's initial output as a leader, the collection contains quite a few absolutely stellar numbers that would make the highlight reel in any musical career. In Abercrombie's curriculum vitae they were jumping off points in a musical resume that continues to grow and modify while the guitarist maintains the unique qualities that have long ranked him among the best modern players... for those who have an interest in the career development of one of the finest musical minds of our time, this is a collection to own.
Personnel: John Abercrombie (guitar, mandolin); Richie Beirach (piano); George Mraz (double bass); Peter Donald (drums).
Liner Note Author: John Kelman .
Recording information: Talent Studio, Oslo (11/1979); Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg (11/1979); Talent Studio, Oslo (11/1980); Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg (11/1980); Talent Studio, Oslo (12/1978); Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg (12/1978).
Photographer: Rick Laird .
As part of ECM's Old & New Masters series of box sets, John Abercrombie's The First Quartet collects three albums recorded for the label between 1978 and 1980. Two titles, 1979's Abercrombie Quartet and 1981's M, have been unavailable for decades. By the guitarist's own admission, this band represents the guitarist's first time as a "proper" bandleader. His earlier dates on ECM had been co-led sessions (Timeless, Gateway, Sargasso Sea), a solo album (Characters), and sideman gigs (Jack DeJohnette's New Directions, David Liebman's Lookout Farm, etc.). These three dates also represent an important foundation for Abercrombie as a composer. Arcade's title track is an energetic post-bop number that borders on jazz-rock, with keen interactions between the front-line players and the rhythm section. Another aspect of the band's conversational ability can be heard on Richie Beirach's gentle "Nightlake." Their lyrical interplay on the ballad "Paramour" is almost luxurious. The long journey on the pianist's "Alchemy" spends its first half as a ballad, but eventually moves into higher gear with almost euphoric group improvisation. Abercrombie Quartet's most inspiring moments include the syncopated cooking on "Blue Wolf," the moody yet focused "Dear Rain," and the more rockist groove that drives "Riddles." It gets more ponderous on "Stray" (where the piano solo jumps from the tune's nearly washed-out body as a genuine surprise) and on the closing "Foolish Dog" -- despite a fine mandolin-guitar break and woody, fluent solo from George Mraz. "Boat Song," the opening track on M, showcases a deeper collective confidence all around. The tune emerges rather than begins. The foundation is a repetitive six-note pattern by Beirach. Abercrombie catches and builds on it, seemingly one extra note at a time, until he's sliding through one series of fluid harmonic inventions to the next during his solo. The shimmering cymbal and snare work by Peter Donald adds a swinging waltz feel to the bottom. "What Are the Rules" is a canny open improvisation that works exceptionally well. "Flashback" haltingly follows suit before transforming itself into a funky groover. Closer "Pebbles," written by the bassist, seems to circle back to "Boat Song," but it's more elliptical until his bassline grounds the more atmospheric interplay of the front line and Donald becomes the bridge to communication. While none of these recordings is perfect, they are all necessary parts of Abercrombie's catalog. What's more, they remain thoroughly engaging after all these decades. The simple fact that the quartet form remains one of this guitarist's favorite ways of working well into the 21st century can be attributed to the creative fire and enduring merit of what is found here. ~ Thom Jurek
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