John Abercrombie’s revised quartet introduces Marc Copland to ECM. Yet guitarist and pianist are old allies, with an association stretching back forty years. Both were members of Chico Hamilton’s quartet, and at the dawn of fusion both played with pioneering jazz-rock band Dreams. In the earliest days of their affiliation, Marc was still playing alto saxophone, the instrument on which he first built a reputation. Around 1970 he switched to piano, gradually distilling diverse influences into a personal jazz style. In interviews Copland has noted that Abercrombie was amongst the musicians who encouraged him in this transitional period and says that he has always felt close to John’s sound-world. “If I played guitar I would want to sound like him. We're both into listening, approaching harmonies in a certain way, playing lyrically as well as swinging – we have a lot of that in common.“
Since the late 1990s they’ve revived their partnership in diverse contexts and have toured in formations ranging from piano-guitar duo to trio with Kenny Wheeler to the cooperative group Contact with Dave Liebman and Billy Hart. For much of the last decade Abercrombie and Copland have also each had bassist Drew Gress as a regular member of their respective bands. Joey Baron, who has propelled most of Abercrombie’s bands in the 21st century, also plays in trio with Copland and Gary Peacock. 39 Steps draws on a network of trusted relationships.
Abercrombie hasn’t featured a piano in his ECM recording groups since his late 70s/early 80s quartet with Richie Beirach. The two chordal instruments, guitar and piano, are not always compatibles, especially in the fast-moving context of jazz improvising, but Copland and Abercrombie surmount the challenges: “By listening carefully and working together, it's possible to get stunning effects, textures, colours, sounds”, Copland told All About Jazz.
Jazz ballads and lyricism predominate on this new disc with six tunes from Abercrombie’s pen, two Copland tunes, one collective improvisation, and a creative deconstruction of the old standard “Melancholy Baby”. Cinematic references crop up amongst the titles, with four tracks alluding to Hitchcock: “Vertigo”, “Spellbound”, “Shadow of a Doubt” and “39 Steps” itself. The album – produced by Manfred Eicher at New York’s Avatar Studio in April 2013 – is issued in time for a European tour by the quartet with concerts in France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Poland, Hungary and Macedonia.