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In the wake of intense roadwork on both sides of the Atlantic, John Abercrombie’s group, with its fresh perspectives on the meaning of freedom and interplay in and out of the jazz tradition, has become perhaps the most consistently exciting and creative unit the guitarist has led in the course of his three decades with ECM. This edition of the Abercrombie Quartet manages to combine an extraordinary lyric gracefulness and a lithe, serpentine sense of rhythm with much fire.

The story of its development began six years ago, when Abercrombie and Mark Feldman began to work together in earnest, although its roots go back to a mid-80s workshop in Banff, Canada, when John first heard – and was astonished by – the violinist. “Open Land”, recorded 1998, brought Feldman into the orbit of Abercrombie’s “organ trio”(with Dan Wall and Adam Nussbaum), and suggested ways that the work could be carried forward. It was a matter, as Abercrombie explained to writer Greg Buium in Coda magazine recently, of targeting musicians who could play his harmonically-idiosyncratic tunes and who would also welcome the idea of negotiating more open-form music, freely developed out of the compositions. Hence the inclusion in the line-up of bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron, both players with whom John has considerable history and both gifted improvisers.

Their debut as a quartet on “Cat’n’Mouse”, recorded at the end of 2000, was widely praised: “Spacey, thrilling contemporary music” – John Fordham in the Guardian; “Must be nominated as production of the year… Of all the fine creations Abercrombie has delivered, this is both the best and the hardest to classify” – Peter Rüedi in Die Weltwoche; “The birth of a great band” – Karl Lippegaus, Süddeutsche Zeitung; “Abercrombie’s best in a long time” – Ben Ratliff, New York Times.

The commitment of these four musicians, each making this quartet a priority despite bandleader duties elsewhere, and their many miles of touring together, has brought the music to a new level, and “Class Trip” marks a considerable advance on its predecessor. Amongst its most compelling attributes is the players’ group sense, they way in which they move so surely together in collective improvisations that retain, even at high speeds, a sense of form. In his liner note to the disc, Thomas Steinfeld calls this “Abercrombie’s art of elevation”:

“In Mark Feldman, Joey Baron and Marc Johnson, John Abercrombie has found three musicians who are his equals in the art of conjuring up and making disappear. Together with Feldman, one of the great violin improvisers, he gladly entangles himself in a joint melody, playing in garlands, often a little transposed and with a short, lightly glimmering lag… The two do not play ‘cat and mouse’ together, but rather ‘formation flight’ or ‘the dancing couple,’ and who does the leading is seldom certain… This ‘Class Trip’ indeed has something of a high-spirited outing among allies. Not only because the four-man elevation demands a high dose of familiarity, musical mutuality and empathy, but also because such an outing demands huge clarity of relations: Clear structures, successions of harmony embedded deep within the memory and meters that can be disregarded because they are already mastered in all their variants. Clarity of relations is the prerequisite for freedom, beauty and wit being able to emerge. These are musicians wishing to move within an enchanted world… They perform magical antics, small miracles of lavishness and not only accompanied by the music, but filled with it, transfigured and inspired.”

Or, as John Abercrombie says, “It’s a perfect band, my favourite band, for playing free improvised stuff, where there’s little or no talk about what you’re going to do. There might be a little send-off, or there might be a little vehicle. Or sometimes there might be no vehicle. But this band is so quick. Joey Baron is just one of the quickest musicians I’ve ever encountered. He can turn on a dime; he can do absolutely anything.”

Critic Bob Blumenthal has observed that “Mark Feldman is one of the most versatile improvisers on any instrument”. Feldman has certainly been through more idioms, styles and lives than most of his contemporaries – fluent in the classical repertoire, accomplished at bebop and swing, a strong free player, and with a background also as a Nashville sessioneer, he is certainly the only musician to have played with John Zorn, Johnny Cash, the Basel Sinfonietta and Kenny Wheeler. In recent years he has worked often with his wife, expatriate Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, as on the “Abaton” set released by ECM in 2003. Where “Open Land” and “Cat ‘n’ Mouse” stressed Feldman’s eclectic grasp, the role of the violin has become integral as the group has grown, as the quartet’s focus has tightened and the improvisations become ever more purposeful. Abercrombie views the music they play as improvised chamber music, rooted in the jazz tradition, but better able to avoid the tried-and-tested gestures of ‘free jazz’ by virtue of the instrumentation. “It’s a strings and percussion ensemble that often likes to play abstract music,” says Abercrombie.

Alongside new Abercrombie pieces, serving mostly as springboards into the free, the group also plays an improvised arrangement of Béla Bartók’s “Soldier’s Song”, from the 44 Duos for Two Violins. Bartók has long been an inspiration for Abercrombie, as for so many jazz musicians. After all, he transformed folk music and dance music into high art. The best jazz players do no less.

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Marc Johnson has been an influential improviser since the late 1970s. In 1978, while still with Woody Herman, an invitation to sit in with pianist Bill Evans led to his membership of the last of Evans’ great trios. A masterful and supportive collaborator as well as a perspicacious bandleader, Johnson has led a number of significant groups. The two-guitar format of the Bass Desires band with Bill Frisell and John Scofield was subsequently revisited with Frisell and Pat Metheny. Both units were popular and critical successes and established a strong following for the bassist. Through the 1980s into the 1990s a member of the John Abercrombie Trio, Johnson appears on five of the guitarist’s ECM recordings, also contributing to ECM albums by Dino Saluzzi, Ralph Towner and, most recently, Charles Lloyd (“Lift Every Voice”). He and Joey Baron are also the rhythm section for John Taylor’s piano trio (ECM album “Rosslyn”)

Joey Baron first recorded for ECM in 1987 as a member of Bill Frisell’s band on “Lookout for Hope.” His dozens of credits include work with a very wide range of musicians, from David Bowie to Misha Mengelberg, via Chet Baker, Philip Glass, Stan Getz, Carmen McRae, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett, Hampton Hawes, Laurie Anderson, Art Pepper, Jay McShann, David Sanborn, Al Jarreau, Jim Hall, Big Joe Turner, Robyn Schulkowsky, Lee Konitz, Tim Berne, and the Lounge Lizards. He also leads his own groups, The Down Home Band and Killer Joey.

As for the guitarist: this is John Abercrombie’s 24th ECM album as a leader or co-leader. Writing about his work in the magazine Experience, Frank-John Hadley said “It can be forcibly argued that his discography is superior to that of any guitar player of the past quarter century… virtually all of the hundreds of tracks recorded for ECM brim over with vastly creative ideas.”

The history of Abercrombie’s bands from the “Timeless” trio with Jack DeJohnette and Jan Hammer through to the formation of the quartet with Feldman, Johnson and Baron is traced on John’s newly-issued “Selected Recordings” disc in the ECM :rarum series.

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