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The third recording by John Abercrombie’s exceptional quartet with Mark Feldman, Marc Johnson and Joey Baron, is issued in the 33rd year of his association with ECM. A lot of music has flowed, in many contexts, since 1974, but Abercrombie’s priorities have remained unchanged. He still sees himself as a player in the jazz guitar tradition of Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall, remains committed to improvisation influenced by both the eruptive melodic invention of Ornette Coleman and the lyrical sensitivity of Bill Evans, still writes highly distinctive material for his colleagues and grants them a great deal of room for expression inside it. As violinist Mark Feldman recently remarked to All About Jazz, this interpretive freedom, gratefully accepted by the band, results in the most committed performances. Joey Baron has put it more simply: “Every night is a blast”.

Mark Feldman has been working with Abercrombie for a decade already and the partnership – first heard on disc on 1998’s “Open Land” has brought fresh colours into the music. Guitar/violin frontlines in jazz go back a long way – Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli are early instances... Abercrombie and Feldman know the heritage but take the music to new places. Add Marc Johnson as the third member of this group’s ‘string section’ – guitar, violin, double-bass – and sonorities are sometimes closer to contemporary composed music. Abercrombie: “I guess you could say that with the current quartet, I'm playing more freely than ever. I think this is due mostly to the players (of course), and to the instrumentation. The free improvs sound more like chamber music, and not so much like free jazz. Even though the playing sounds free, I think it's also becoming more traditional. The freer more open playing feeds the more traditional playing ...” Drummer Joey Baron can augment the group with colouristic playing or drive it with tremendous élan. In brief, this quartet is an improvising chamber group and a hot jazz combo – sometimes both in the space of a single tune.

Specific roots in Ornette and Evans are honoured this time with a composition by each of them. Abercrombie has often played Coleman’s strongly swinging, bluesy “Round Trip”, a piece that first appeared on Ornette’s 1968 “New York Is Now”, where Coleman and Dewey Redman were joined by the rhythm section of Coltrane’s classic quartet: Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. Jones, whose vast influence has touched every contemporary jazz drummer, is also remembered here with “Elvin” a soulful tribute written by Abercrombie.

“Epilogue” is the Evans tune, originally on the 1958 recording “Everybody Digs Bill Evans”, revived on the 1966 “Bill Evans At Town Hall”. Marc Johnson played with Evans at the end of the great pianist’s life. “Coming out of the Bill Evans Trio, my idea of the role of the bass in a rhythm section was to be an active and participatory voice, to support the harmony and groove but also to respond and provoke.” Johnson’s work with Abercrombie, initially in the trio with Peter Erskine (founded 1983), was his first major musical alliance after Evans. “It was thrilling, and placed new demands on me to complete the harmony simultaneously as an accompanist and as a counter-voice.” Alongside his projects with Abercrombie – and inspired by them – Johnson led the exceptional band Bass Desires (with Bill Frisell and John Scofield) in the 1980s. His most recent leader disc for the label is “Shades of Jade”, with Eliane Elias, Joe Lovano, John Scofield and Joey Baron. Other ECM credits include work with Charles Lloyd, Ralph Towner and Dino Saluzzi.

Johnson has worked extensively with drummer Joey Baron. They have also been two-thirds of John Taylor’s “New York Trio” as heard on the album “Rosslyn” (2002). Many listeners first heard Baron with Bill Frisell’s group (“Lookout For Hope”) in 1987. His inventive playing was one of the defining elements of the so-called Downtown scene. John Abercrombie has said, “Joey may be the most resourceful drummer of them all. He’s certainly the quickest. He can play literally anything, and can turn on a dime.” Baron’s numerous recordings include albums with John Zorn (the prolifically recorded Masada band in particular), Dave Douglas, Misha Mengelberg, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, and more, as well as his own groups including the widely applauded Down Home Band with Arthur Blythe, Ron Carter and Bill Frisell. Nor is his resumé limited to jazz: he has also been heard with bluesman Big Joe Turner, pop singer David Bowie, and composer Philip Glass.

Mark Feldman’s versatility has meanwhile acquired the cast of legend. From Loretta Lynn to Pharoah Sanders, from reggae stars Sly & Robbie to the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra...there are few areas of music that he has not touched. ECM recently issued a rare leader date from Feldman: “What Exit”, a highly original disc with John Taylor, Anders Jormin and Tom Rainey joining the violinist in a programme of his compositions (“Stunning” – All About Jazz). Feldman is also heard on “Abaton” (2002) by the trio of the same name, which plays compositions of Sylvie Courvoisier and free improvisation.

After almost fifty ECM recordings John Abercrombie must qualify as one of those players who requires little introduction. Half of those recordings have been as a leader or co-leader, the other half with, amongst others, Charles Lloyd, Kenny Wheeler, Jan Garbarek, Collin Walcott, Jack DeJohnette, Enrico Rava, Barre Phillips, Dave Liebman. Over the years much has been written about Abercrombie’s ever-evolving guitar sound, less about his tunes. But there are few jazz composers better able to set up pieces for optimal improvising than Abercrombie, whether in a quasi-free context – as on the opener here, “Banshee”, which draws the players, and the listener, into its swirls of sound – or in the lyrical triple-time pieces which are one of John’s idiosyncratic specialities (“Tres” is a characteristic example, inspiring Feldman to some of his most expressive playing).

Overall, “The Third Quartet” reflects the progress that the band has made since “Cat’n’Mouse” (2000) and “Class Trip” (2003), and is a powerful document of a band that is still growing, a band heralded by many critics as Abercrombie’s best yet.

The Abercrombie Quartet tours Europe and the US in March and April, with concerts in Spain, France, Italy, Slovenia, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands followed by a residency at New York’s Birdland and further club dates in Boston, Washington DC and Philadelphia.