Even before listening to City Abstract, it's possible to form some idea of where Dan McCarthy's coming from: on the Canadian vibraphonist's second release for the Seattle-based Origin Records, two tunes are affectionate tributes to Carla Bley and Gary Burton, and covers of classic material by Bley, Keith Jarrett, and Pat Metheny also appear. If a bit of an ECM vibe informs the album, it's in part attributable to McCarthy's avowed love for the albums Burton released on the label during the '70s; Bley too figures importantly in the project, with McCarthy citing her as his major compositional influence. Influences aside, his own personality comes through loud and clear, not just in the playing but in the six originals he contributed to the release.
City Abstract is also a bit of a homecoming project, considering that it symbolizes the vibraphonist's return to Toronto (ostensibly to pursue his Masters in Jazz Composition at York University on a full fellowship) after a fifteen-year stint in New York City, where he played with Steve Swallow, Anat Fort, Mark Feldman, Gerald Cleaver, Ingrid Jensen, and others. The Humber College graduate's joined on the recording by three of his former instructors: guitarist Ted Quinlan, bassist Pat Collins, and drummer Ted Warren; highly regarded improvisors in their own right, their splendid performances effectively expose the lie beating at the heart of that tired line "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach."
The dynamic opener "Bleyto (for Carla Bley)" glides in like the freshest of breezes, with a unison vibes-and-guitar head paving the way and the bass and drums augmenting it smoothly. Things loosen up once the solos start, the leader first and Quinlan second, both contributing powerful statements abetted by Warren's imaginative punctuations. As much as it's a sincere Bley homage, the tune ends up sounding like a McCarthy original more than something by the esteemed pianist.
"Midwestern Nights Dream," a stirring ballad from Bright Size Life, is trademark Metheny, the chord changes even at this early stage in his career emblematic of his style. Wisely, Quinlan doesn't ape his counterpart in the solo, while McCarthy's vibes show how well the instrument expands on the atmospheric sultriness of the composition. Sensitive playing all around makes the cover an album highlight—though it's hard to go wrong when it's from the Metheny catalogue. Perpetuating the reflective character of "Midwestern Nights Dream" is an even more wistful performance, in this case Jarrett's "Coral," Warren wielding brushes and McCarthy, Collins, and Quinlan at their ruminative best. Treated to a heartfelt reading, Bley's "Utviklingssang" has become something of a modern classic and deservedly so: its elegiac tone and haunting melodies are as affecting today as they were when the tune first appeared on 1981's Social Studies.
On the originals tip, the expansive "Sparrow Lake" shows McCarthy's absorbed a lesson or two from such masters when its elegant melodic arc and rhythmic lilt suggest subtle Metheny-like flavouring. Not everything's so mellow, as the fiery "Go Berserk" illustrates. Executed in 7/4, the cut might remind listeners of a certain age of the uptempo bits on Jeff Beck's Blow By Blow, especially when Quinlan dials up the distortion. How fitting that City Abstract should end with "Desert Roads (for Gary Burton)" when McCarthy would seem to be something of a natural heir to Burton's throne. The singing tune's soulful, R&B-inflected vibe comes as a surprise but not an objectionable one, and the quartet's relaxed handling makes for a smile-inducing album resolution.
As strong as the leader's own playing is on the release, it's matched by his partners—consider, for example, the disarmingly lovely solo Quinlan sneaks into the middle of the ballad "Other Things of Less Consequence." And to McCarthy's credit, his compositions sound anything but second-rate when heard alongside those of Bley, Metheny, and Jarrett. It's, all things considered, a solid outing, with a well-considered and balanced choice of material enhanced by performances that consistently sparkle.