John Abercrombie’s revised quartet introduces Marc Copland to ECM. Yet guitarist and pianist are old allies, with an association stretching back forty years. Both were members of Chico Hamilton’s quartet, and at the dawn of fusion both played with pioneering jazz-rock band Dreams. In the earliest days of their affiliation, Marc was still playing alto saxophone, the instrument on which he first built a reputation. Around 1970 he switched to piano, gradually distilling diverse influences into a personal jazz style. In interviews Copland has noted that Abercrombie was amongst the musicians who encouraged him in this transitional period and says that he has always felt close to John’s sound-world. “If I played guitar I would want to sound like him. We're both into listening, approaching harmonies in a certain way, playing lyrically as well as swinging – we have a lot of that in common.“
Since the late 1990s they’ve revived their partnership in diverse contexts and have toured in formations ranging from piano-guitar duo to trio with Kenny Wheeler to the cooperative group Contact with Dave Liebman and Billy Hart. For much of the last decade Abercrombie and Copland have also each had bassist Drew Gress as a regular member of their respective bands. Joey Baron, who has propelled most of Abercrombie’s bands in the 21st century, also plays in trio with Copland and Gary Peacock. 39 Steps draws on a network of trusted relationships.
Abercrombie hasn’t featured a piano in his ECM recording groups since his late 70s/early 80s quartet with Richie Beirach. The two chordal instruments, guitar and piano, are not always compatibles, especially in the fast-moving context of jazz improvising, but Copland and Abercrombie surmount the challenges: “By listening carefully and working together, it's possible to get stunning effects, textures, colours, sounds”, Copland told All About Jazz.
Jazz ballads and lyricism predominate on this new disc with six tunes from Abercrombie’s pen, two Copland tunes, one collective improvisation, and a creative deconstruction of the old standard “Melancholy Baby”. Cinematic references crop up amongst the titles, with four tracks alluding to Hitchcock: “Vertigo”, “Spellbound”, “Shadow of a Doubt” and “39 Steps” itself. The album – produced by Manfred Eicher at New York’s Avatar Studio in April 2013 – is issued in time for a European tour by the quartet with concerts in France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Poland, Hungary and Macedonia.
John Abercrombie made his ECM leader debut in 1974 with the aptly named Timeless. He has been one of the label’s core artists ever since. He has played on more than fifty ECM sessions, both as a leader and as a highly creative contributor to recordings with Charles Lloyd, Kenny Wheeler, Jan Garbarek, Collin Walcott, Jack DeJohnette, Enrico Rava, Barre Phillips, Dave Liebman and more. Along the way his playing has evolved, becoming as he says, both more ‘free’ and more ‘traditional’. His 2011 recording Without A Song, with Joe Lovano, Drew Gress and Joey Baron, reflected upon the music that first inspired him in the 1960s, taking stock of the freedoms implied in the music of Coltrane, Coleman and Rollins, and emphasizing his musical connections to Bill Evans and to guitarist Jim Hall.
Marc Copland’s first album as a leader, 1988’s My Foolish Heart, recorded for the Jazz City label, featured Abercrombie as guitarist. Copland’s discography, documented on labels including Savoy, Steeplechase, Sunnyside, Soul Note, Hatology and Pirouet has emphasised his poetic musical sensibilities, qualities much praised in the jazz press. "What magnificent touch,” enthused France’s Jazzman magazine, “what mysterious beauty in his harmonic choices, what fresh surprises from this subtle master of the modern piano."
Drew Gress is one of the most in-demand bassists currently operating out of New York City, and he’s been featured on more than 150 albums. In addition to playing in the bands of John Abercrombie and Marc Copland, he has toured and recorded with John Surman (see the album Brewster’s Rooster, its line-up again including Abercrombie), Ravi Coltrane, Uri Caine, Fred Hersch, Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas and many others. He can also be heard on the new ECM album Baida by Ralph Alessi.
Drummer Joey Baron has appeared frequently on ECM since 1987 when he debuted as a member of Bill Frisell’s quartet on Lookout for Hope. He plays on the John Abercrombie albums Cat’n’Mouse (2000), Class Trip (2003), The Third Quartet (2006), Wait Till You See Her (2008) and Without A Song (2011). He can also be heard with Steve Kuhn on Remembering Tomorrow, Mostly Coltrane and Wisteria, and with Marc Johnson on Shades of Jade and Swept Away. He has also toured and recorded very extensively with John Zorn and played with numerous jazz greats including Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, Lee Konitz and many more. With Tim Berne and Hank Roberts he co-led the group Miniature, and he has also directed his own groups Killer Joey and Baron Down.