Review

JOHN ABERCROMBIE 39 Steps

Album · 2013 · Post Bop
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4.5/5 ·
Steve Wyzard
SUBTLE, CALM, MEASURED

In a world of perpetual change, it's nice to know there are some things you can continue to count on. Take, for instance, the much-discussed "ECM Records sound": the haunted, melancholy, "wide open spaces" atmosphere that can be heard as far back as its early-1970s releases. If it's beautiful, autumnal, heartland, Sunday-afternoon chamber jazz you're looking for, you've come to the right place with longtime ECM guitarist John Abercrombie's 39 Steps.

Recorded in April 2013 with Marc Copland on piano, Drew Gress on double bass, and Joey Baron on drums, 39 Steps is much more, well, "down to earth" than his last few releases. Albums such as Class Trip, The Third Quartet, Wait Till You See Her, and Within a Song were more on the noir-ish, late-night side of Abercrombie's guitar-playing spectrum, while 39 Steps will prove to be much more compatible with those who enjoy the classic ECM sound. It should be stated from the outset that those looking for more of his fiery 1970s soloing or his 1980s experimental freak-outs may find this album somewhat pale in comparison. Tracks such as "Vertigo", "Bacharach", "Greenstreet", and "As It Stands" are best described as subdued, peaceful, or even relaxing. The compositions are strong, the solos are solid, and interest is always sustained, but this is not music that will disturb your neighbors. Copland's two compositions, "LST" and "Spellbound", are both much busier and simultaneously more mysterious. Long-time Abercrombie listeners are sure to enjoy "Another Ralph's". Quoting directly from "Ralph's Piano Waltz" (which appeared on both 1975's Timeless and 1986's Current Events), this song has Abercrombie out in front rather than just another player in the quartet. While the soloing spotlight is consistently shared amongst all the players, 39 Steps remains unequivocally a John Abercrombie album. "Shadow of a Doubt" is a group improv (another ECM trademark), and "39 Steps" is a mini-epic, appropriately summing up all that's come before. An offbeat, jesting cover of "Melancholy Baby" closes the album, leaving a smile on the face of all but the most determined listeners. And after a not-too-long (59:42) meandering journey, we're right back where we started.

With all the references to past glories, there's no doubt many will consider this a "long-past-his-prime, career-achievement" album. As a 30+ year listener to Abercrombie's fluid fretwork, I can only urge others to give the introspective and atmospheric textures of 39 Steps a real chance. Newbies may not be impressed, but they are gladly referred to the earlier albums (such as the two mentioned above) of one of the greatest jazz guitarists of our time. While 39 Steps may be lacking in intensity, it more than compensates in true artistry, and not just on cloudy Sunday afternoons.
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