John Abercrombie unveils a band comprised of old friends, and increases the improvisational quotient in his new music on "Cat´n´Mouse". Violinist Mark Feldman had already expanded the Abercrombie/Dan Wall/Adam Nussbaum Trio to quartet size after the success of the 1998 "Open Land" recording, and has toured Europe and America with the guitarist. The idea for the current project, recorded in New York in December 2000, was to "continue the relationship with Feldman and develop a music that was still more open-sounding". Keyboards were abandoned for this album, freer even than "Open Land", and an emphasis placed instead on "string-sounds": violin, guitar and double-bass. In the latter capacity Abercrombie welcomes Marc Johnson back to the fold. Guitarist and bassist were of course two-thirds of a long-running trio (completed by Peter Erskine, and well-documented on ECM). John and Marc have worked together in recent seasons, too, in Charles Lloyd's touring bands, and their musical empathy is very much intact. On drums on "Cat´n´Mouse" is Joey Baron, bringing his particular drive and edgy intensity to the music.
Baron and Abercrombie haven't crossed paths much in the last decade, but they also go back a long way. About 20 years ago, a young Baron substituted for Peter Donald, one night in Los Angeles, in an Abercrombie group with Richie Beirach and George Mraz. Through the 1980s, Baron would drop by for jam sessions in Abercrombie's Manhattan loft, often proposing unorthodox approaches to improvisation. "Let's think of a tune and not play it" was one of the directives Abercrombie fondly recalls. (A similar spirit might apply to parts of the present recording: "Third Stream Samba" for instance contains no hint of Brazilian rhythm.) "Joey has such a different take on the drums yet at the same time has all this tradition behind him, everything with work from Carmen McRae to big bands. And his playing is really wide open, ready to go anywhere at a moment's notice."
Abercrombie's "A Nice Idea", which opens the album, is one of a long train of waltzes written by the guitarist over the years. (His passion for 3/4 time once prompted pianist Andy Laverne to dedicate a composition, "The Waltz King", to Abercrombie). John praises Mark Feldman's contribution: "I can't imagine any other violinist being able to do what he does here. My tunes are not easy to improvise upon, and this one is harmonically pretty rich. But Feldman goes through it like it was a standard song."
"Convolution" is structured to encourage open-form playing: "It's a series of three little melodies which occur at different times, and in between the melodies the improvisation is quite free." A final theme sets up a rock rhythm. "At the end we play all the themes again, one after another, in rhythm." With electric guitar and violin playing the themes in unison, a heavy and powerful sound, some correspondences with the late Mahavishnu Orchestra may be noted.
"String Thing" was written on guitar and its melodic lines redistributed to Feldman and Johnson to create a chamber piece. "Manfred Eicher encouraged us to improvise freely around a harmonic chord progression extracted from the tune. Manfred also asked Mark Feldman and Marc Johnson to play without vibrato, to make the composition sound almost like a baroque piece." Abercrombie's steel string acoustic guitar takes on an almost lute-like sonority in the mix.
"Soundtrack" written on the piano, has a rich, romantic theme that cries out for cinematic treatment. "It's the soundtrack to a love story not yet written", the composer suggests.
Listening to playbacks of the first completely improvised piece on the disc, and the way in which abstract phrases of guitar and violin move around Joey Baron's brushed snare rhythms, Abercrombie was reminded of Third Stream music he'd heard around 1960, when Gunther Schuller and associates began to integrate jazz and classical forms. Hence "Third Stream Samba": "There's no 'Samba' of course ..." Broken rhythms figure prominently.
"On The Loose" is in two sections, the first has a "bluesy, backbeat feel", the second - cued with three sharp raps on Baron's snare - is in a fast and furious jazz tempo. The extreme diversity of approach challenges the soloists to play quite differently at both ends of the song.
"Stop And Go" is the oldest tune on the album, written 25 years ago in response to a recording by the Jerry Hahn Quintet. Guitarist Hahn, probably best known for his work with Gary Burton ("Country Roads", "Throb" etc) and John Handy, had a recording on (roots music label) Arhoolie with a band that included Jack DeJohnette, bassist Ron McLure, saxophonist Noel Jewkes and violinist Michael White. "The direction on Hahn's record was 'free country swing'. The melodies were country and almost corny and the solos were played in what we used to call 'time, no changes': there'd be a rhythm, a fast jazz tempo, but no harmonic progression. So 'Stop And Go' is in this spirit, in the style of a piece by Jerry Hahn called 'Dippin' Snuff'". The country context allows Mark Feldman to touch on some of the things he learned in a six year residency in Nashville. Before the violinist landed in New York, he was an in-demand session violinist in Tennessee, recording with country giants including Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
Finally, "Show of Hands" is another free piece, building from delicate textural exploration and sound-colour, to powerful blowing. Towards the end of the collective improvisation, as the storm subsides, Joey Baron abandons drumsticks to play the kit with his hands. Hence the title.
The Abercrombie-Feldman-Johnson-Baron quartet tours the US in support of this CD in March, finishing with a week at the Jazz Standard in New York City. In April and May they tour Europe.
Press reactions to "Open Land"
"John Abercrombie is one of the best guitarists on the planet and his latest album rates among the finest of jazz releases in the past year ... It can be forcibly argued that his discography is superior to that of any guitar player over the past quarter century, beating out John McLaughlin, Jim Hall, John Scofield, the whole lot. The nine compositions on Open Land, like virtually all of the hundreds of tracks he's recorded for ECM, brim over with vastly creative ideas. Take the title opus. Guest violinist Mark Feldman briefly conjures Mahavishnu Orchestra before the music opens up harmonically and ventures down its own singularly daring course ...Wonderful, wonderful music everywhere."Frank-John Hadley, Experience
"The program of eight Abercrombie originals and one collective improvisation is a marvel of gently twisted lyricism ... Feldman is one of the most versatile improvisers on any instrument, and he proves equally persuasive stretching the hazy boundaries of the title track and calling on his years in Nashville on 'That's For Sure'".Bob Blumenthal, The Atlantic Monthly
"Abercrombie's steely tone and bent or broken-off notes miraculously project warmth and ease, and he is in flawless form here ... Violinist Feldman shrieks or offers jagged descending runs on 'Free Piece Suit(e)', but always ends up serving a higher musical purpose ... The wholeness of Abercrombie's approach - his tone, his compositions, the democratic use of improvisational passages - allow the ensemble to remain cohesive and compelling whether landing on lunar musical surfaces or staying closer to the ground with more accessible jazz melodies."Bill Kisliuk, Boston Phoenix
"The US guitarist is justly celebrated for his intelligently constructed, cogent soloing ... Like his famous contemporaries - Frisell, Scofield, Stern, Metheny - Abercrombie has imbibed enough rock to render him accessible to fans of that genre, but his gently discursive approach locates him more in the jazz field than any of them, and this polished album is one of his most accomplished to date."Chris Parker, BBC Music Magazine"This is one of the great records of the year."Richard Cook, Jazz Review
"His new album 'Open Land' has been attracting the most attention and acclaim he has enjoyed since he started recording as a leader in 1975 ... Abercrombie plays the guitar better than ever, but technique, speed, is not really the point anymore. He's no longer concentrating on improving what he plays, he's after what he has not yet played. "Mike Zwerin, International Herald Tribune
"John Abercrombie's latest project is something of a revelation. 'Open Land' is a startlingly beautiful collection."John Lewis, Time Out
"The core group is joined at various points by trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and the fresh voices of Joe Lovano on saxophone and Mark Feldman on violin, whose rich yet gamey approach suits Abercrombie's vision nicely. Abercrombie continues to carve out a trend-free niche all his own in the guitar world. Timeless remains the operative word."Josef Woodard, Jazz Times