Last year, John Abercrombie released an album of standards that appeared on my 2012 shortlist of favorite jazz guitar albums. His 2013 followup is a collection of mostly originals, performed by a quartet featuring Mark Copland on piano, Drew Gress on bass, and Joey Baron on drums. 39 Steps shares the contemplative, acoustic vibe of the standards album, but demonstrates that Abercrombie is still a cutting-edge innovator among modern jazz pickers.
The addition of Copland sets 39 Steps apart from much of Abercrombie’s latter-day output, in which he is often the sole chordal instrument. Copland (a saxophonist turned pianist) has a sparse, open sound that melds well with the guitarist. The album’s tone is set by the ethereal opening tune “Vertigo,” followed by a swinging yet still-cerebral “LST.” Other reviews have noted shades of Bill Evans in this album. Indeed, fans of the Village Vanguard recordings, or Evans’ telepathic collaborations with Jim Hall, will find much to enjoy in the chemistry of this quartet.
39 Steps starts off as a fairly conventional (albeit modern) jazz album, reaching its straight-ahead apex on Abercrombie’s “Greenstreet”; while the title may or may not be a reference to Grant Green, the swinging piece certainly recalls some of the hard bopper’s definitive Blue Note recordings (think Idle Moments or Matador). However, at about the halfway mark, the album seems to slowly deconstruct in fascinating — though still supremely musical — ways. The band takes greater liberties with time, space, and harmonic complexity. “Shadow of a Doubt” takes the band into free jazz territory, with Abercrombie’s volume swells and staccato picking hovering over Copland’s discordant arpeggiations and single-note runs. The balladic title track re-grounds the listener around a melodic and rhythmic motif that seamlessly ebbs and flows through the band’s improvisations. 39 Steps ends on its only cover, a marvelously disjointed reading of “Melancholy Baby” that is pure John Abercrombie in mood and execution.
Manfred Eicher is at the producer’s helm throughout, and his trademark acoustic austerity provides a perfect setting for the interplay of Abercrombie’s quartet. This gorgeously recorded and performed album is easily destined for my 2013 shortlist.