It’s tough to miss the magic John Abercrombie conjures late into his splendid new “Up and Coming” album when the familiar melody of Miles Davis’ “Nardis” surfaces. The tune, essentially reinvented by the iconic pianist Bill Evans, assumes an almost meditative stance when Abercrombie reconfigures it again on guitar. The resulting sound is equally recognizable, as his playing has been integral to the music promoted by the celebrated ECM label for much of its history. Still, this embrace of a tune so readily associated with piano may initially seem a little foreign, especially given the spaciousness Abercrombie applies to it. But this interpretation doesn’t merely provide insight into the re-imagining of a jazz standard, it unlocks a dichotomy between piano and guitar that makes “Up and Coming” so captivating.
Abercrombie has long thrived in the company of keyboardists, from the raw exchanges with Jan Hammer that propelled “Timeless,” the guitarist’s 1974 debut album for ECM, to an astounding set of albums featuring Richard Bierach (reissued by ECM in 2015 as a box set collection called “The First Quartet”). But outside of an overlooked 1990s trio with organist Dan Wall, keyboards of any kind have been largely absent from Abercrombie recordings in recent decades.
That changed when pianist Marc Copeland was enlisted to join bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron on 2013’s sublime “39 Steps.” Copeland is hardly a new find. He and Abercrombie first played together during the early 1970s in drummer Chico Hamilton’s band. The two have also recorded regularly in duo, trio and quartet settings led by Copeland.
The album title then seems fitting, as “Up and Coming” reflects a sound created by longstanding like minds. That’s probably because the music Abercrombie and Copeland create is so complementary in tone and spirit, continuing the guitarist’s shift to a lighter, more lyrical sound created by playing mostly with his thumb in lieu of a pick.
Though the mood is often contemplative throughout “Up and Coming,” there is always a lovely unsettled sentiment to Abercrombie’s playing, which is mirrored with eerie simpatico by Copeland on the dreamscape intro to “Sunday School.” The piano melody drifts with a wary, dark uncertainty before the guitar gently pulls the music in out of the cold, warming it next to the full quartet’s subtle but glowing stride.
Copeland sounds almost stoic as the album opens, creating an understated solemnity slowly accented by Abercrombie and sparse percussion fills from Baron. That it glides with spacious uncertainty provides a marked contrast to the tune’s title: “Joy.”
Curiously, the album’s inviting lightness harkens back the early days of ECM’s quietly pastoral music, but not necessarily to Abercrombie’s initial work. On “Up and Coming,” the guitarist reaches a quiet, assured and beautifully unhurried plateau. It may breeze along with a Pat Metheny-like lilt on the album-closing “Jumbles” or chill within the airy introspection of “Tears.” Either way, Abercrombie adorns the music with the elegance of a stylist who has remained altogether down with being up and coming.