Music News & Reviews

Critic's picks: John Abercrombie Quartet, '39 Steps'; and Ralph Towner, Wolfgang Muthspiel and Slava Grigoryan, 'Travel Guide'

About four minutes into Ralph Towner's new album Travel Guide, you hear the autumnal cast of acoustic guitar work undercut by light, electric counterpoint.

If you know Towner's work, you would swear the second guitarist was his old ECM running buddy John Abercrombie. The unexpected but harmonious blend of Towner's classically accented acoustic play and Abercrombie's more restless electric instrumentation was one the ECM label's most beguiling sounds. It was simultaneously warm and wintry, intimate and orchestral.

Travel Guide, however, is something of a tease. Towner's new electric companion is Wolfgang Muthspiel, a player who chooses to match Towner's patient, playful tone rather than play off it as Abercrombie used to.

There is a third player in the mix, Slava Grigoryan, who also plays classical but additionally offsets the balance on baritone guitar. It's not hard to pick Towner out of the mix, though. His playing simply glides, from the lean but mysterious lyricism of Museum of Light to the rich lyrical clusters of Windsong that recall Towner's ongoing work with the multi-stylistic jazz troupe Oregon.

So where is Abercrombie when Towner's new trio project spins further atmospheric variations on the ECM sound? Not sitting idly by, that's for sure. Like Travel Guide, there is a modest harkening to the past on his new quartet album, 39 Steps.

Curiously, the first sound you hear isn't guitar but lone piano chords that bring Towner to mind. Towner has doubled throughout his career as a highly intuitive pianist, even though there is limited use of the instrument on his solo work (on Travel Guide, piano is absent entirely). The piano voice on 39 Steps belongs to Marc Copland. While he has collaborated several times with Abercrombie (though mostly on Copland's own recordings), he is new to the Quartet, a group that has been without piano altogether for decades.

Copland tempers the proceedings considerably, making 39 Steps one of Abercrombie's most serene works. The contemplative mood is established in the album-opening Vertigo (one of several pieces bearing Hitchcock-ian titles) as guitar and piano engage in a light ballet accented by the animated drum fills of Joey Baron. The mood carries over into the boppish ballad As It Stands before relaxing into the elongated flow of Spellbound. The quartet steps up the pace in increments on Shadow of a Doubt, leaving 39 Steps' title tune as the record's most ominous and spacious journey.

Does all of this mean we will hear Abercrombie and Towner cut another duet recording? Seeing as the last one, Five Years Later, is now more than three decades old, such a prospect seems unlikely. But how fun it is to hear the two echoing each other on recordings where new alliances cross paths with old inspirations.