John Abercrombie - Class Trip (ECM)

When guitarist John Abercrombie connected with violinist Mark Feldman for Open Land (ECM, '99), he continued a tradition, albeit in an updated fashion, that stretched back to Reinhardt and Grappelli. Introducing drummer Joey Baron in to the fold for the followup, Cat n' Mouse (ECM, '02), continued the lineage down to the triumvirate of John McLaughlin, Jerry Goodman and Billy Cobham of the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The new album by the quartet, rounded out once more by Marc Johnson on bass, has taken a step back, not towards the hot jazz of Reinhardt and Grappelli but towards some of Abercrombie's more reflective work during his thirty-year tenure with ECM.

Abercrombie has never really fit into the mold of his contemporaries, the George Benson School initially, and the Coryell fusion model subsequently. Perhaps it is his airy tone or his compositional style that shies away from strict forms. While he can play fast and even with rock-like abandon, his projects always have an amorphous quality to them that make everything he plays seem like suites rather than tunes. On Class Trip , eleven modest-length compositions make use of wonderful guitar-violin unison lines over expansive foundation of Baron and Johnson. Some may call Abercrombie a fusion guitarist, but this term is inaccurate. The fusion that is commonly derided is composed like a fast run through a series of sharp corners. Abercrombie's compositions are a stroll through a forest, one that can have a thunderstorm or two, but rarely presents the same scene twice.

Some may prefer an edgier Abercrombie; that is what his live performances are for. July's mini-stand at Birdland was an opportunity to play some older compositions and expand upon them mellifluously and with humor. His albums rather are carefully sculpted affairs that present his sparse sketches to the listener, with a sense of just being born and with room to adapt. Some of the pieces on Class Trip —the title track, the opening “Dansir” and the album's highlight, “Swirls”—will no doubt become much more than originally envisioned. Abercrombie uses the ethereality of the ECM tradition as a path towards more freedom instead of as an inhibitor.



Rashied Ali/Arthur Rhames - The Dynamic Duo Remember Trane and Bird (Ayler)

For some, Interstellar Space was the end of John Coltrane—and for others, just the beginning. As many people dislike Rashied Ali for being Trane's last drummer as like him for that same reason. Indisputable though is that Interstellar Space began the examination of new possibilities for the duet format, apart from the typical piano/bass example. Ali continued to explore this arrangement after the death of his mentor on albums like Duo Exchange with late saxophonist Frank Lowe and in his current duo with altoist Sonny Fortune (in residency at Sweet Rhythm this month). Ayler Records, continuing a spate of exciting archival live albums, has released another chapter in Ali's saxophone duet history, this time as a double disc set with, sadly, another late player, tenor Arthur Rhames.

The performance was recorded in 1981 at the Willisau Jazz Festival. Given Rhames' relative obscurity, the first disc begins with Rashied Ali narrating liner notes over a 17-minute exposition by himself and Rhames. The rest of the set consists of material by Coltrane including “Mr. PC,” “Giant Steps,” “Impressions” and even a brief reading of most of A Love Supreme (all interesting choices as they all predate Ali joining Coltrane's group). The Eckstine standard “I Want to Talk About You,” Miles' “Tune Up” and four pieces ostensibly improvised by Rhames and Ali are thrown in for good measure.

Unlike Interstellar Space , where Ali's desperate attempts to hang on are part of the charm, The Dynamic Duo presents an Ali almost fifteen years older and playing with a saxophonist near his age when he was recording with Coltrane. Ali may have matured, but never at the expense of the muscular aggressive style that makes him a perfect foil for horn players. Despite being viewed as a “free” drummer, players like Trane, Lowe, Rhames or Fortune can rely on him to follow the flow of their ideas as carefully as they do and surprise with his empathetic support.

The sound reproduction is quite good, helped by the two very distinct ranges of the instruments involved (Rhames does also contribute some piano to the set). What makes this music particularly appealing is the presentation of mostly actual tunes, a rare opportunity to focus on the melody and rhythm of jazz without the softening effect of harmony and counterpoint. Rhames can just blow (and does, furiously, from the 23-minute “Mr. PC” to the end) and Ali can react solely to him, creating a more visceral and monolithic sound.

The medley style of the set makes one marvel not only at Rhames' remarkable facility and tone, even at high speeds, but at both musicians' stamina. Even the slower numbers do not lack for vitality, the duo format leaving no room to hide behind lush chords. Rhames may no longer be with us, but rest assured that Ali has not come close to finishing what he started.



Jacob Anderskov Accident - Unity of Action (Ilk)

On Unity of Action, Rhodes player and composer Jacob Anderskov has the enviable task of writing pieces for a front line that can at any time consist of trumpet, cornet, alto sax, clarinet, tenor sax, bass clarinet, and trombone. The colors at his disposal seem limitless. But many writers have become stymied by all this choice, instead presenting music that is stilted and overly determined.

Anderskov instead has brought material that is loose, varied and fun, making this octet more of a dynamic small group than a brass-heavy large ensemble. His Mwandishi-like rhythm section of Rhodes, electric bass and pounding drums assures listeners this is not another foray into “blat-blat, blat-blat-blat” big band charts. There is precedent to this looser approach in Sun Ra, Zappa, the Brotherhood of Breath, and Soft Machine.

But Unity of Action is not a pastiche of time-tested approaches, or at least it does not come across as such. The best description is that it sounds like what the Dave Holland Big Band could sound like if it just lightened up a little bit and stopped being so precise. This is not to say that Anderskov and his bandmates are sloppy or undisciplined. Rather, Anderskov has written tunes that are arranged to expand like a gas, rather than pierce like a ray.



Sam Bardfeld - Periodic Trespasses (The Saul Cycle) (Fresh Sound-New Talent)

With his second release as a leader (and first for Fresh Sound), violinist Sam Bardfeld presents an album full of modern Jewish intellectual reflection, as practiced by such diverse artists as Saul Bellow and Woody Allen, but couched in terms owing more of a debt to Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage.

But given those two foundations, this album is neither radical Jewish culture a la Tzadik nor progressive rock. It is instead another fine entry into the seemingly endless pool of releases by young New York composers/conceptualists.

Bardfeld plays the role of “Central Scrutinizer” here, narrating the tale of the main character, Saul, as he pursues his dream to play medieval krummhorn (a curved wooden horn which does not make an appearance on the album). The quirky narrations (seven in total) introduce songs and “suites” of songs (all but one are originals by Bardfeld) and should be appreciated for their literary merit, rather than read as linear explanatory notes.

A concept album is only as strong as the music that it rests on, though. Bardfeld, along with a quintet that includes trumpet (Ron Horton), vibes and slide whistle (Tom Beckham), bass (Sean Conly) and drums (Satoshi Takeishi), has written music that exists simultaneously in the realms of the accessible and postmodern. These pieces share a romantic quality, which is not surprising given the sonorities and textures that Bardfeld is used to working with as a violinist, but they also have a dramatic flair and unity that is absolutely crucial if the disc is to hold together as more than a collection of tunes by a guy with a band. At the end of the disc, you still might not know who Saul is or what he represents, but he can be thanked for his inspiration to Bardfeld.