When pianist Marc Copland formally joined the John Abercrombie Quartet for 2013's wonderful 39 Steps, he brought with him the fruit of the musical relationship between himself and the guitarist that had been established some four decades earlier with Chico Hamilton, and in the fusion band Dreams. Their evolution continued the guitarist's participation on several of the pianist's albums, and as sidemen playing in the same bands with Kenny Wheeler and David Liebman. Bassist Drew Gress, who has worked with both men separately over the years, is a further link in the chain, while drummer Joey Baron has played with the guitarist often enough to be intimately familiar with his compositional and improvisational processes.
Abercrombie wrote five of these eight tunes, Copland contributed a pair, and the group offers a startling read of Miles Davis' nugget "Nardis." It's in the reinvention of the latter number where this band showcases its greatest strengths. While they remain faithful to the song's harmony and spirit, they open up its inner space a moment at a time, almost imperceptibly at first. Abercrombie parses his phrases, albeit fluidly, to reveal the hidden magic in Davis' nuances, as Copland follows through and around them to crystallize its striking chorus. There's a great deal of magic in the originals as well. Opener "Joy" commences with a poignant minor-lyric statement, picked up by Copland before the pair stagger the melody and begin a gradual yet emotive and inquisitive interplay. Gress accents the changes while Baron adds dimension and texture with his whispering cymbal work. The pianist's solo highlights each melodic fragment with canny lyricism. The guitarist's "Flipside" is brief, but its swinging tempo and tight changes spotlight the band breezing through post-bop with zest, humor, and chops to spare. A more complex side of that nature is expounded upon in Copland's "Silver Circle," providing an opportunity for Abercrombie to underscore the edges in a rounded yet knotty solo. The pianist's "Tears," with its processional yet lithe chord voicings, hushed cymbals, and muted tom-toms, is initially so gentle and tender, it momentarily distracts from the darkness within. Abercrombie's break caresses the melody's haunting frame; Gress picks apart its elements and exposes its spine reinforced subtly by Baron, and Copland opens the seam to expose drama, vulnerability, and loss. The set concludes with the guitarist's "Jumbles," a jocular, midtempo workout that juxtaposes angles and breezy harmony with a varying rhythmic palette. Up and Coming clocks in at under 50 minutes. Its compositional and improvisational economy is countered by the quartet's disciplined ability to colorfully and authoritatively illustrate an abundance of creative ideas without hinting at compromise. ~ Thom Jurek