JOHN ABERCROMBIE — Timeless (review)

JOHN ABERCROMBIE — Timeless album cover Album · 1975 · Fusion Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
It's never a good thing for a critic to parade his ignorance, but in all honesty I can't tell you much about the life or career of guitarist John Abercrombie. All I know is that the title track of his 1974 debut solo album is, without exaggeration, one of the cornerstones of my entire music collection.

By itself this one cut is so compelling that for more than two decades it all but obliterated any interest I might have shown in the rest of the album. More fool me, because the entire package is an unassuming slice of pioneering musical Fusion, arranged by a guitar player who in a perfect world would be far better known outside the limited circle of Jazz Rock devotees.

The simple, no-frills production (not much more than a judicious application of reverb) leads me to suspect the bulk of the album was recorded live in the studio. Clearly the final mix benefits from the spontaneity of the performances, played by a gifted power trio able to employ as much nuance as muscle. Keyboardist Jan Hammer was of course an alumnus of the first and best MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA; drummer Jack DeJohnette attended the legendary Isle of Wight concert alongside a newly electrified MILES DAVIS; and Abercrombie himself was already a session veteran with a lengthy, impressive résumé.

The track list is perfectly balanced between two longer (but very different) pieces bracketing a quartet of shorter instrumentals. Among these are a pair of gentle piano / acoustic guitar duets, plus the intergalactic cocktail-lounge jazz of "Ralph's Piano Waltz" (with not a piano within earshot), and the harder-edged, hypertense fusion of Jan Hammer's "Red and Orange", built around a theme purloined from the classics. Another Hammer composition, the 12+ minute "Lungs", opens the album in a quiet frenzy of virtuosity, alternating with a more subdued, dreamlike interlude leading to an open-ended jazz-funk conclusion.

This leaves only the astonishing title track, a 12-minute masterpiece of otherworldly mood and invention, ending the album on maybe the warmest chillout in recorded history. Listen to that long opening drone, setting up a simple, haunting 12-note melody (actually only three notes, repeated in descending scales), with every carefully located sound bathed in blissful amniotic contentment. Is it Jazz? Space Rock? Ambient Electronica? A little bit of each and none of the above would be my closest guess.

Especially striking is the protracted entry of Hammer's mini-moog, fading in over the course of what sounds like several minutes (only a slight exaggeration), slowly embellishing Abercrombie's delicate picking and the typically fluid brushstrokes of DeJohnette's drumming. In short: here's a track that ably lives up to its title, having hardly aged a minute after more than 35 years.

Because this was an album that put a higher value on quality and competence over flashy pyrotechnics, it might have escaped the attention of discriminating listeners with an ear for Jazz Rock Fusion finesse. Trust me here, because I speak from experience: you don't want to allow half your life to slip away before treating yourself to this one.
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