I remember where but not which.
The shop was in Princes Gate Arcade, down the end in a kind of cul-de-sac where only record hunters and lost commuters ended up. I remember a big window, counter, racks—sparsely distributed around a loungeroom-sized space—and bean bags where you could audition an LP of your choice under headphones and the watchful gaze of the hip staff. Euphoria Records. Well named indeed.
There is an aura, a kind of aesthetic elegance, surrounding ECM records. The covers display a house style that varies yet is instantly recognisable (not least due to the ever-present ECM moniker). Production values were high right from the inception of Manfred Eicher’s label. Jazz, but not as you know it.
That’s the section I used to browse, wanting to move beyond the Modern Jazz Quartet and late Teddy Wilson whose delicate dexterity had become accustomed like the bicycle route to a mate’s place; all the options are known and there’s safety in the cornering.
But ECM was an adventure above everyday streets, a lunge into rarefied air promising light-headed enchantment, magical realms of unfamiliar music, swirling currents and refracted melodies.
Intriguing in anticipation, captivating on immersion.
What was the first ECM record I bought? This or that?
When Return to Forever appeared in the post Faves and Waves no glowing pinpoint memory lit up on mental junction board. And when I featured the album last year I awarded it the genesis position for reasons of narrative economy, not from certainty. Of course it does not matter. It was either Chick Corea or John Abercrombie—I treasure them both.
Particularly right now, as I process the news that John Abercrombie has died, aged 72.
Timeless, his first album, signified a turning point in my musical journey I have no expectation that the wonder it delivered over forty years ago can be squeezed into words, nor the joy it brings to this day adequately transmitted. It marked a new country—exotic, engaging, a little confronting—at the edge of the existing map, at the borders of the known world. And here is something: I can easily imagine how Timeless could serve that function still.
A trio comprising Abercrombie on guitar, drummer Jack De Johnette and Jan Hammer on organ, synthesiser and piano, the music they made together does not slide easily into any category. Just the fact there is no bass player (Hammer providing the low-end pulse via his keys) marks this out as something not quite jazz, certainly not rock, but revealing a strong genetic influence of each.
The album opens with a funky, synthesised flurry of notes and melody. “Lungs” rocks along for a few bars before an abrupt change of pace, letting us know nice and early this is music brimming with invention and unexpected twists. Guitar and organ pass the swirls between each other like jugglers pitching fireworks that dart and sparkle. It’s a laugh, a blast, a conversation with an edge like a playful welcome slap that leaves a mark—show me what you got, well I got plenty enough for you. “Lungs’ seems shorter than it’s twelve minutes due to the parts. It’s a trilogy with the second section being slow, mysterious, spacious, introverted. Then some space-age synth funk from Jan Hammer lays the ground for some Abercrombie shafts of light. Meteor spurts over a purple beach. A party in your head doesn’t get much groovier than this, space cadet. Breath it in.
If “Love Song” is a love song, that’s some kinda love, as Margarita told Tom. Between thought and expression lies a lifetime*. Jan is on piano, John on guitar. It is exquisitely pretty, but in an off-kilter way, the not-unison-not-counterpoint playing of the two soloists meeting in the spaces as much as the moments of confluence. Marg and Tommy are not your average couple, that’s for sure.
If The Matrix had a cantina scene à la Star Wars, “Ralph’s Piano Waltz” could be the tune the be-shaded trio were grooving on. Triple time, yet as far from a Strauss waltz as can be imagined, De Johnette tosses the rhythm around with die-cut precision while Hammer lays out an organ background and some anchoring bass lines. Abercrombie juggles silver cutlery over the three course tune before an organ solo that evokes Bo Hansson’s folk-tinged explorations. They get fast but never frantic and change pace and rhythm with nonchalant ease. Superb, just superb.
Side two, in brief.
“Red and Orange”—more funky synth and cooking organ with insistent rocking guitar. Think Mahavishnu Orchestra on Mars, only even better.
“Remembering”—atmospheric and plaintive; an abstract ballad for piano and acoustic guitar.
“Timeless”—the album has a twelve-minute piece at either end. This title track could have been composed for the cover image (Art by Rolf Liese). Guitar over synthesised drones evoke a wide alien landscape populated by lines of guitar and organ in a slow, stately dance, movements at once enchanting and unfamiliar. This is progressive jazz-rock impressionism at its best, but don’t let any of those words put you off. First and foremost it is beautiful, and as strange as Circinus crystals showering from ancient suns.
Maybe you have caught something of my enduring delight in Timeless. Track it down and live with it a while. Play it in the morning when the sun glances through the kitchen window. Spin it late (or later) in the sensuous intimacy of a solo headphone encounter.
If you become a comrade, tell me.
I’ll know by your smile anyway.
* No prize other than VC respect for identifying the lyric reference.