Followers of guitarist John Abercrombie were taken aback by 2002's Cat 'n' Mouse , featuring violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Marc Johnson, and drummer Joey Baron. Maybe it was the personnel, maybe the right time and place, or maybe a moment of clarity on everyone's account, but the group resonated as well as any Abercrombie has ever led. It married his penchant for group exploration and abstract logic, while still retaining firm roots planted in swing and blues. The brand new Class Trip is much more of the same, without much of a sense of sameness. That is, after all, the point of the whole thing.
Something about having three string players get together (without any horns along for the ride) makes the music that much more open and warm. It also means that resonance is a shared entity, and that matters a lot when all players are equally active in the unit. For his part, Feldman often rides in the lower register of his instrument, placing him firmly in the guitarist's active range. That helps support a more cohesive spirit, and with such open-ended improvisation, cohesion matters.
Nine of eleven compositions are by Abercrombie (the other two are "Soldier's Song," by Bartok; and "Illinoise," credited to the group). Each tune is a separate experience marked by a distinct mood and style, but you can be assured that Abercrombie serves the music with oddly-timed and idiosyncratic gestures that almost always swing to one degree or another. "Dansir" radiates a sense of shared exploration, "Illinoise" paced intensity; "Excuse My Shoes" melancholy loss; "Swirls" tumbling surprise; and "Epilogue" sharp-edged focus.
This is Abercrombie's best work since Gateway, which is a point of nostalgia in any case. He's lean, fluid, and articulate; the band is right there with him all the way.