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The First Quartet

ECM 473 2437



    CD1 - Arcade

  1. Arcade

  2. Nightlake

  3. Paramour

  4. Neptune

  5. Alchemy

    CD2 - Abercrombie Quartet

  1. Blue Wolf

  2. Dear Rain

  3. Stray

  4. Madagascar

  5. Riddles

  6. Foolish Day

    CD3 - M

  1. Boat Song

  2. M

  3. What Are The Rules

  4. Flashback

  5. To Be

  6. Veils

  7. Pebbles

John Abercrombie - Guitar, mandolin guitar

Richie Beirach - Piano

George Mraz - Double bass

Peter Donald - Drums

ECM possess an enviable back catalogue and this 3-CD set, a re-issue of recordings from the period 1978 to 1980, illustrates wonderfully well the treasures they have in their vaults! Sometimes material from earlier decades can sound dated, a product of their time and no more than that. Much of what we hear on these discs sounds so fresh it might have been recorded yesterday. John Abercrombie, the guitarist and leader, has always been an adventurous musician and here, with his earliest quartet, he plays mandolin guitar, essentially an electric mandolin, as well as his more familiar instrument. During his career, Abercrombie has shown a facility for jazz-rock, bop, free jazz and chamber jazz respectively. These recordings owe much to the latter tradition yet contain more fire and bite than that might suggest. Above all, he is highly individual in his approach, laid-back, inventive and restrained. Furthermore, he shows a talent for composition, contributing the music for eight of the tracks on the discs. The bulk of the rest come from the pen of Richie Beirach who reveals classical influences in his writing (he had an early classical as well as a jazz apprenticeship) with the final track of M the only exception, where bassist George Mraz chips in.

On the first disc, Richie Beirach's composition Nightlake is an absolute standout with a strong theme, both atmospheric and romantic. Abercrombie is at his eloquent best and the group overall are in total harmony. Another piece by Beirach again ticks all the boxes. Bearing the name of Neptune (I'm not sure whether it refers to the planet or the Roman god of the sea) it manages to be mysterious and engrossing with Abercrombie exploring the theme with delicacy and charm. The final track, Alchemy, provides scope for Beirach on piano to show what a talent he is, surfing along over the firm and focussed tone of the exceptional George Mraz on bass and Peter Donald's dextrous accompaniment on drums. Abercrombie, meanwhile, takes an almost tentative approach initially on mandolin guitar, before demonstrating in a more expansive way the range of the instrument. This is lovely stuff, restful and therapeutic.

The Abercrombie Quartet disc, we learn from the informative booklet provided, replicated the style of the group's live performance more than the others in this box set, in terms of energy and power. I would single out for special mention Blue Wolf where there is immaculate interplay between mandolin guitar and piano and where drive and sensitivity keep each other company. Madagascar is another memorable tune from Beirach with, yet again, superb piano from Richie himself with a touch of exoticism thrown in. The upbeat Riddles is notable for an extended solo by drummer Peter Donald, an impressive affair which brings to the fore his accomplished style. John Abercrombie is on guitar for this one. Foolish Dog owes its title to a typo (it was meant to be called Foolish Door equally cryptic, in my view) but whatever you call it, the piano plays a striking role in its success, along with the rich bass sound of George Mraz.

According to the liner notes, Abercrombie rated M, the third disc in this package, less highly than the other two. John Kelman who wrote the notes disagrees. Certainly tracks such as Boat Song and To Be are very fine. Boat Song is a delight to listen to. To Be is a ruminative ballad with Abercrombie on acoustic steel guitar and cogent playing all round. Nevertheless I'm inclined to the view of Abercrombie that standards dipped a little overall on M, for whatever reason.

The booklet tells us where members of the group are today. Abercrombie, of course, continues his distinguished recording career with ECM as a leader and as a sideman. In the latter capacity, he has shone with the late Kenny Wheeler on Deer Wan and with John Surman on Brewster's Rooster, to name but two of those with whom he has creatively collaborated in past years. Richie Beirach is involved in jazz education in Leipzig but maintains, too, a long-time musical association with saxophonist Dave Liebman. The impeccable George Mraz, Czech by birth but an American citizen, is still a sought- after bassist, playing with some of the best. Peter Donald teaches social studies these days. Lives and careers move on yet these three discs remind us, not only of past glories, but of the enduring quality of the music these four musicians made together.

James Poore

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