You don’t expect septuagenarian artists to amend their work much – after a full career of music making, one’s style is solidly in place. But refinements do bubble up, especially in jazz. Respected guitarist John Abercrombie has turned a corner of late, beveling the tone of his playing and making his instrument radiate with a soft glow rather than the rounded fuzz that marked his approach for the last several decades. The latter was attractive enough. But this newish complexion is enticing indeed, and it parallels the charm of the music being made by his latest quartet on Up and Coming.
Though things occasionally get heated on this pithy program (eight tracks under 50 minutes), the guitarist shapes his dreamy ballads and mid-tempo gambols with the kind of measured manner that might beget stretches of grey in the hands of a lesser improviser. But Abercrombie has a little magic on his side when it comes to keeping the lid on things – he fully sidesteps flashy runs, but the music never sounds tepid. Here he shows us he’s a tasty player by banking on the idea that forcefulness can be squeezed from a gentle touch, a soft insistence, a lithe volition.
This tack doesn’t always yield a sure thing. Last time out, he and his quartet of pianist Marc Copland, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron did fall prey to the listlessness that propriety can sometimes generate. 2013’s 39 Steps offered plenty of hushed charm, but was lacking in the liftoff department; everything seemed a tad too ethereal.
Up and Coming, a wry title after cutting more than 30 albums under his own name and participating in an similar number of sideman dates, has a bedrock tension that’s perpetual. The band’s élan is obvious on a thoughtful frolic such as “Silver Circle,” where both Abercrombie and Copland sanction some overt animation for themselves, and Baron reminds us just how nuanced a powerhouse can be. The interplay on “Flipside” swings with the kind of propulsion that hints at tumult but is tempered by grace. That said, the bulk of the album is comparatively humble, if not demure. I fell for the opening “Joy” after hearing echoes of Lou Reed’s “Magician” in its first four notes; they both unfurl themselves with a somber poise. That kind of balance marks “Sunday School” as well.
Copland is an apt foil for the guitarist. He’s long hitched his wagon to introspection, but always manages to bring a dollop of verve to the table. His extensive string of albums has proven just how cagey he can be when it comes to braiding sensitivity and splash. He’s certainly not shy about injecting Miles Davis’ “Nardis” with a bit more hubbub than you might assume, but his enviable sense of touch allows it to still come off like a rumination.
Maybe it’s a band trick. Time and again the foursome manages a show of dynamics while still providing an aura of privacy. Ultimately, the latter texture defines this music. Whether they’re responsible for a momentary ruckus, or merely conceiving the next collective exhale, they never betray their commitment to the splendor of serenity.