Digging into the Archive

Thoughts on John Abercrombie’s Abercrombie Quartet and our Tues. Oct 26 JRAC show

This show was delayed due to COVID situation at Fulton Street: new performance date, Tuesday, December 28.

So if we think of the archive of music as a great library with shelves extending into infinity (I think of the scenes from late in the film Interstellar), what I’ve done for this show is pick a book off the shelf almost at random. That is almost literally what happened—I was flipping through someone else’s collection of ECM vinyl and I put this on because I liked the cover and I thought I’d see what was up with John Abercrombie, who I’d heard of but never really listened to. What grabbed me were two things: the piano playing of Richie Beirach, and also his compositions, especially the waltz “Stray,” the third track on the first side. Then, knowing about JRAC, and thinking this could be interesting for the series, I started to transcribe and follow things further.

It’s been thrilling because the more time I spent with this music, the more I liked the group feel, the overall sonic combination of piano and guitar, the very active drumming, the gorgeous “direct bass” sound of George Mraz. Transcribing the tunes also revealed, as “Stray” had indicated, that this music had harmonic obsessions that I shared, and that I could also hear in works by, say, Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel.

Richie Beirach’s piano playing and his composing were what first drew me to this. What pulled me farther in, especially since we started rehearsing for this show, were the compositions by John Abercrombie, particularly the contemplative, lyrical pieces “Dear Rain” and (despite the whimsical title) “Foolish Dog.” Having now had a chance to explore more of the Abercrombie body of work, and also having had the distinct honor and luck to speak with Mark Feldman about later Abercrombie years, I can now recognize a style in those pieces that was his, and that kept informing writing in later years, and I like it!

From left: George Mraz, John Abercrombie, Richie Beirach, and Peter Donald

Where will all this lead? Not clear, but what is clear that digging into the archive, almost at random, can be a bracing experience, as of discovering an unknown world. I have no sort of encyclopedic mastery of jazz, of Black improvisational music, but I have listened to a lot, and this was not an obscure record—Abercrombie had an extensive career with one of the great record labels of the last fifty years. And yet, the degree of oblivion surrounding this group and these recordings is high. I have yet to run into anyone on the scene in Chicago who had heard them.

Part of the reason might have been that this group had its brief flourishing right as the Pat Metheny Group (also a guitar piano quartet at the start) was getting going—also on ECM for a bit, until the tensions between Metheny and Lyle Mays, on the one hand, and Manfred Eicher on the other, proved too great. This Abercrombie quartet also feels like a group where the guitarist and pianist have equally large musical personalities, but how different in almost every conceivable other way from the Metheny group. One is tempted to call this the anti-Pat Metheny Group. Let’s think about that: there is a commitment to freedom, interplay, a restlessness to this group; Metheny and Mays are on record for wanting to orchestrate and create steady narratives in their performances, emotional trajectories that could captivate their audiences.1 They felt that way too much was left to chance in jazz performance, and that very much extended to the recording studio, where their very clear and thought-through vision clashed with Eicher’s approach. But Abercrombie and Beirach certainly seem to have shared a vision. Again, linking to the example of Turner, there are pieces here where one can feel the desire to expand the vocabulary, there are pieces that are pathways to versions of harmonic indeterminacy, of chords that don’t quite fit in standard jazz speech. So despite the free-flow of energies, and the immense vitality of this playing, and the sense of delight and play, there is also abstraction and a serious bent toward musical locations that are difficult not just technically but emotionally, difficult because they are attached to multiple colors and registers of feeling and are thus fascinatingly indeterminate. And this all feels very different from the direction Metheny’s group pursued with such success.

Anyway, the JRAC is fabulous, as is the archive itself, because one can get pleasure from returning to a cherished volume, or from making a discovery from which more ideas and inspiration can be drawn, as well as drawing you farther along that particular shelf in this enormous library, which is what we hope this show will be for all who are able to join us.


  1. Here is a revealing quotation from Mays: “There were high concept discussions on dynamics, orchestration, form, pacing, drama, presentation . . . everything. It was the opposite of the jam session. We designed the group, it didn’t just click into place. It was engineered and built” (see Mays’ website, emphasis mine).

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