critic’s pick 306: john abercrombie, ‘the first quartet’

john abercrombieThere is an assessment within the bio materials accompanying John Abercrombie’s The First Quartet that the three vintage albums making up the box set stand as “seminal documents” in the development of the guitarist’s abilities as a bandleader. If anything, “seminal” is an understatement in this music’s resurfacing.

Cut in rapid succession between 1978 and 1980, the trio of recordings making up The First Quartet certainly chronicle Abercrombie’s rise from a solo and collaborative performer for ECM, the Munich-based label that came to define a heavily impressionistic slant on what was then contemporary jazz (the package is the latest in the label’s Old and New Masters series). The band Abercrombie assembled came initially from established affiliations with bassist George Mraz and drummer Peter Donald. Later came the addition of esteemed pianist Richie Beirach, who the guitarist met upon moving to New York.

But The First Quartet also serves an extraordinary dual purpose. First, for those unfamiliar with Abercrombie or even to the ECM sound as it existed 35-plus years ago, this set is an ideal primer. The musicianship’s overall scope is light and lyrical but spacious in a way that unites elements of fusion and even chamber music. Upon first listen, Abercrombie’s guitar tone is atmospheric enough to recall Pat Metheny’s early records. The comparison is further underscored by the way Abercrombie locks into ballet-like exchanges with Beirach (whose ECM records as a leader are equally deserving of an Old and New Masters treatment) and the way the latter, in turn, buoys his more melodic phrasing to the rhythm section. But where Metheny (who also recorded for ECM at the time) was more fusion based, this music from Abercrombie shifted between echoes of bop and rich yet lightly accented ensemble orchestration.

The other big achievement of The First Quartet will appeal to longtime Abercrombie fans. None of the set’s recordings – Arcade (1979), Abercrombie Quartet (1980) and M (1981) – have previously received a domestic release on compact disc (Arcade was available briefly as a Japanese import). They have been out of print completely for years, so hearing them again on CD is a bit of an occasion.

None of the music sounds at all dated– a testament to ECM founder Manfred Eicher’s crystalline production as well as to the entire design of the compositions, from the mysterious bounce on Arcade’s title tune to the light but restless swing of Stray (from Abercrombie Quartet) to Beirach’s gorgeously plaintive set up for Abercrombie’s darting guitar chatter on the M finale song Pebbles.

It all makes The First Quartet an enticing welcome to novice fans as well as a series of brilliant missing chapters for diehards. Either way, the music it contains is nothing short of enchanting.

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