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On “Within A Song”, John Abercrombie pays tribute to formative influences, to the recordings and the musicians that shaped his early listening and his future directions. The period addressed is the 1960s, with specific reference to key recordings by Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Bill Evans. This new album, revisiting some classics of the era, is effectively a modern jazz primer, but it’s also much more.

“Manfred Eicher and I had been talking for a while about doing an album that might pay homage to a particular jazz artist or composer. But in the end I preferred to look at the era when my own musical tastes were shaped. The recordings that I was listening to back then were mostly post-bebop jazz albums, usually by artists who were stretching the forms, in their various ways.”

Guitarist Abercrombie and tenorist Joe Lovano convey their empathy with the original protagonists, while also bringing much of their own creativity into service. There is superlative playing from both of them, with encouragement and alert support from Joey Baron and Drew Gress, also vital contributors to the project.

The album opens with “Where are You”, from Rollins’ “The Bridge”, and from the same source comes “Without A Song”, the latter now enveloped in John’s title track. “Hearing Sonny Rollins and Jim Hall on ‘The Bridge’ was an epiphany for me,” Abercrombie says. “They just turned my head around. When I heard them playing ‘Without a Song’", I thought that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard! So for this new album I wrote songs based upon it.”

Jim Hall has long been one of John’s primary influences, admired for musicality and harmonic sophistication beyond the creation of great solos, and there are several Hall references on the disc, in connections to Rollins, Bill Evans and also Art Farmer. “I had the opportunity to see Art Farmer’s band with Jim Hall, Steve Swallow on acoustic bass and Pete La Roca on drums quite often, and every time I saw them they played Sergio Mahanovich’s tune ‘Sometime Ago’ in such a poignant way. It was so moving. In my mind, at least, it was the theme song of the Art Farmer-Jim Hall Quartet.” Hall was also on board for Bill Evans’s ‘Interplay’ album whose title tune is reinterpreted here. “I always liked this tune of Bill’s. It’s a very well-written theme on a minor blues. The construction of the melody, and Bill’s use of intervals, is quite unique. Plus, I welcomed the chance to play a blues on an ECM album.”

Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation”, originally recorded on “This Is Our Music”, plays more loosely with the language of the blues. “I liked the total sound of Ornette’s bands with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and either Ed Blackwell or Billy Higgins. It was clear to me that Ornette had a concept and knew what he was doing. I heard his alto playing really as an extension of Charlie Parker. Having recorded ‘Round Trip’ already in the quartet with Mark Feldman [on ‘The Third Quartet’ in 2006], I was looking for another piece with that feeling of openness. ‘Blues Connotation’ has that quality. It’s a piece that gives you the option of playing in a blues style or freely, and this time we took a freer path.”

Abercrombie describes himself as “a late bloomer” vis-à-vis “Kind of Blue”: “It was released in ’59 but I didn’t hear it until 1962, when I was a student in Boston. I was completely captured by Miles’s playing on that album, the simplicity and beauty of it. Of course, the album is meanwhile so well-known that certain tunes have been practically worn out with repetition. But I thought it was still possible to play something fresh on the chord progressions of ‘Flamenco Sketches’ and create our own melodies.”

Coltrane’s “Crescent”, was also the subject of intense scrutiny in Abercrombie’s Boston years. “I had loved the way Coltrane played ballads, but ‘Crescent’ seemed to be a centrepiece for the new music he was working on: the new tunes, with the long rubato intros, of which ‘Wise One’ was a great example. Music of real beauty.”

Abercrombie also adds compositions of his own to the programme. “Easy Reader”, an amiable Abercrombie waltz, makes a nod to Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s “Easy Rider”, another iconic production of 60s vintage. This like “Nick of Time” with its oblique melody, is integrated within the context of an album that looks back with admiration – and a measure of nostalgia – for an era when jazz was in the throes of great changes. “A celebration”, John says, “of an era when the musicians were stretching the forms”.

“Within A Song” was produced by Manfred Eicher at New York’s Avatar Studios in September 2011.

Abercrombie and Joe Lovano have previously collaborated on ECM for John ‘s “Open Land” album of 1998. They have many a shared jam session behind them. Abercrombie had a quartet for a while with Lovano, Steve Swallow and drummer John Riley. John and Joe also toured internationally with French bassist Henri Texier’s groups.

John Abercombie, Joe Lovano and Drew Gress will be playing material from “Within A Song” in New York’s Birdland club for a week in August, the quartet completed on this occasion by Adam Nussbaum on drums. In November 2012, Abercrombie, Gress and Joey Baron will tour Europe in a quartet completed by tenorist Billy Drewes, last heard on ECM in 1982 on Paul Motian’s “Psalm” album.

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