John Abercrombie Quartet, Within a Song
The guitarist John Abercrombie's latest, Within a Song (on ECM) is something of a high-wire act: delicate music of an uninsistent intensity, a quiet swing, that hangs together or collapses on the ensemble's sustenance of balance. The musicians hereJoe Lovano on tenor sax, Drew Gress on bass, Joey Baron on drumsare masters at this sort of thing (and many other things too), and so it's a riveting album. Even when they coast, swish, and twirl along the slightest thread, you're carried along (or I was anyway).
Abercrombie is of the Jim Hall school of jazz electric guitar: low-key, single-note lines that weave around a rhythm, suggesting more than digging into it, but widening the canvas for all sorts of strokes and colors that his bandmates might want to splash on in the process. Hall made his deepest marks in Sonny Rollins' great rhythm section of the early to mid 1960s, and Abercrombie dedicates this album to the music of that era. The title song is an uptempo inversion of "Without a Song," a highlight on Rollins' The Bridge (another tune, "Where Are You," comes from that album as well); they also play "Flamenco Sketches" (from Miles Davis' Kind of Blue), "Wise One" (from Coltrane's Crescent), "Interplay" and "Sometime Ago" (from various Bill Evans albums), Ornette Coleman's "Blues Connotation," and a few of Abercrombie's own originals.
The covers don't have the hard edge of the originals; the tunes from the Rollins albums, for instance, are played as they might have been, had Hall rather than Rollins been the leader. Yet the players possess such improvisational prowess, and strike such a sensitive balance as a group, they pull it off. It's a lovely album, recorded by James Farber (practically ECM's house engineer) with a keen balance that matches the musicians'.
The quartet is playing this week at Birdland in New York City, except that Adam Nussbaum is subbing for Joey Baron on drums, and, at least at Tuesday night's early set, that made all the difference. Nussbaum's a fine drummer who's played with Abercrombie in the past, but he must not have got the memo on the concept for this gig. He pushed too hard, assumed the lead when he should have been whisking accents, and on the slow ballads, when he did settle down, he went stiff instead of airy. The balance collapsed, the ensemble thread snapped, halfway through the set, and so did the simmering energy. This was the first set of the first night. If any of you out there go hear them, let me know if things change. In the meantime, the album is worth having.