Perennial ECM guitar hero loosens up with violinist Mark Feldman and drummer Joey Baron.
Peter Marsh 2002
Guitarist John Abercrombie's career with ECM has spanned the best part of 30 years, during which time he's covered a lot of stylistic ground in both his own groups and collaborations with the likes of Jan Garbarek, Ralph Towner and Jack DeJohnette.
Abercrombie has never quite garnered the success that the likes of Metheny, Frisell and Scofield have had and almost seems destined for the dubious honour of being a guitarist's guitarist, which is a shame.
Cat 'n' Mouse expands on his last album as leader, Open Land, which added violinist Mark Feldman to his favoured organ trio lineup. This time around, Feldman and Abercrombie have been joined by bassist and long time collaborator Marc Johnson plus drummer Joey Baron in a set that's one of the leader's most exploratory outings for some time.
The chamber jazz waltz "A Nice Idea" kick things off, it's attractive, meandering theme allowing some tidy interplay from violin and guitar. Abercrombie's solo alternates almost absent minded ruminations on the tune's harmonic possibilities alternated with really expressive playing.
"Convolution" begins as wooly abstraction before mutating into a less hysterical, unplugged Mahavishnu Orchestra with its tricky ensemble figures and violin/guitar interplay. The leader adds a touch of distortion here, digging into Baron's snare volleys with a vigour that recalls his empathy with Jack DeJohnette on the first Gateway album.
Meanwhile "String Thing" (nil points for the title) is an achingly melancholic exercise in restraint; Baron's brushed snare suggests waves lapping at a distant beach as langourous bass and violin underpin fragile acoustic guitar. This track recalls the intimacy of Abercrombie's solo Characters or his duets with Ralph Towner; not a bad thing.
Feldman and Abercrombie are thick as thieves throughout, particularly on the two group improvisations. On "Third Stream Samba", the duo shadow and anticipate, chasing each others jetstreams before Abercrombie heads off into the stratosphere; on his return, Baron drops out for a luscious three way string conversation, before stoking a gentle samba behind the leader's foggy toned final solo. Stunningly empathic, this is spontaneous music making of the highest order.
Despite the presence of Baron and Feldman, Cat'n' Mouse avoids the catch all postmodernism of the New York downtowners, though the bumptious theme of "Stop and Go" has some of Bill Frisells arch quirkiness, while "on The Loose" sounds a bit too pleased with its own cleverness.
That aside, Cat'n' Mouse is a fine album from a much underrated musician (not just a guitarist...).