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Live Reviews

John Abercrombie Twofer

By Published: March 8, 2004
Submitted on behalf of Audrey Henkin

John Abercrombie is a graduate of the class of guitarists whose role was expanded through the work of players like Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Attila Zoller, Kenny Burrell and Grant Green. This mid- to late-'60's group includes such noteworthy figures as Pat Martino, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Terje Rypdal, Sonny Sharrock and many others. What sets Abercrombie apart is his refusal to live off past successes. While even single projects, like Gateway or his duets with Ralph Towner, have cemented his reputation, Abercrombie, both in the studio and in live performance, is always innovative, outdistancing those of his peers who have settled comfortably in middle-aged complacency and nostalgia. New York is fortunate to have John Abercrombie playing here regularly and the month of March found him in two distinctly different groups in two diametrically opposed venues.

Jackalope
The Lounge at CB's Gallery, March 10, 2002
John Abercrombie (eg), Lorn Stillman (as), Bob Meyer (drm)


Considering that John Abercrombie is one of the few guitarists with an extensive bass-less discography, it was no surprise then to see him in this unconventional format. Jackalope is almost a pickup group, its members residing in nearby Westchester County. The intimate subterranean lounge at CB's Gallery heightened the informal rapport of the trio. The club's program of avant-garde Sundays has made it one the finest locations to hear compelling, thought provoking musicians in the city. The dim lighting, assortment of couch seating, and complete lack of sophisticated pretension put both musicians and audience at ease.
The group played two short sets consisting of originals and free improvisations. Abercrombie's effect on other musicians is astonishing. His originality and musicianship allow for no coasting. The 24-minute "Open Land" segueing into "Dawn of Clementine" opened the show and immediately displayed why Abercrombie is such a unique voice. His style is the purest fusion, an often overused term. While his approach is aggressive and has a rock edge, his lines have the unpredictability and cerebral nature of the most complex jazz. His picking style goes against conventional wisdom by only involving his thumb, but is done with such fluid grace that maybe a whole generation of guitarists will follow his example. 20-something saxophonist Lorn Stillman had a tough assignment keeping up with Abercrombie but held his own and even at moments took over and had Abercrombie following him. Meyer chose to only punctuate the proceedings rather than overwhelm them with constant rhythm. The front line of guitar and sax worked together over the nicely composed melody and then shifted harmonically away from each other as the piece became more frenetic. The set finished with another long segment, beginning with "Four on One" and ending with an impromptu jam. Abercrombie, who never stops being inventive, even when "comping" under Stillman's solo, added atonal filigrees and intervals that are unheard in other guitar circles.
Gunther Schuller's "Densities", Abercrombie's "Stop and Go" and an original by Stillman, "Chicken Marsalis", comprised the thirty minute second set. Schuller's angular composing is ideal for Abercrombie's unorthodox style. Stillman's horn work flowed over choppy playing by Abercrombie. The pace quickened over heavy drums and Abercrombie showed off his virtuosity, flying across the fret board, climbing one emotional ridge after another. "Stop and Go" has a hoedown quality to it. Abercrombie, no matter how fast or eccentric his playing, always perfectly articulated every note, no mean feat. Stillman's warm tone and ability for dramatic flurries complement Abercrombie's playing quite nicely, and will be interesting to hear within the confines of a studio from a possible album release. Stillman had his finest moment on his one original of the evening. There is a grand scale to this piece, Abercrombie playing thick chords over Meyer's thrashing drums. The piece gained momentum, resolving in a veritable blizzard of notes and free blowing. Abercrombie, whose name is synonymous with refinement and polish, showed a different side during this show, one of freedom and spontaneity that left the crowd eagerly expecting this group's return to CB's Gallery in June.

John Abercrombie Quartet
The Jazz Standard, March 27, 2002
John Abercrombie (eg), Mark Feldman (vln), Mike McGuirk (ab), Joey Baron (drm)



Far from the appealingly grungy atmosphere of CB's Gallery, John Abercrombie's quartet set up for a week residency at the newly reopened Jazz Standard. Closed for over a year for revamping and remodeling, its understated ness and relative distance from any tourist locations makes it a welcome readdition to the set of upscale jazz clubs. For the dual fan of jazz and pit barbecue, this should be a regular stop. For those repelled by the smell of pulled pork, the musical offerings should still be a compelling reason to come.

The Tuesday evening performance was essentially the debut of this quartet. They had played one late set the evening before but this was the first opportunity for a solid evening of work together. Simply put, if this was the debut, then come Saturday, this group should blow all competitors out of the water.

While Abercrombie usually pushes other musicians forward, tonight was his night to be pushed. Always exuberant Joey Baron propelled Abercrombie into directions seldom heard from this usually tastefully reserved ECM artist.

The evening began with one of the pieces heard at CB's, "Stop and Go". What is startling is that for someone with such an individual style, Abercrombie meshes perfectly in any setting he is in. The guitar-violin-rhythm section format induces obvious comparisons to the Mahavishnu Orchestra-and the combination of Abercrombie and Baron, if only for this night, were the equal of the McLaughlin-Cobham tandem of 30 years ago. The piece began as a sparse ballad but soon developed into a fast-paced, robust progressive workout with Abercrombie's unexpected melodies used as starting points for fantastic guitar and violin solos. The true mark of a genius is taking music as far out as possible and then being able to bring it back to its original theme seamlessly. Abercrombie and company did this all night. "A Nice Idea" came next, featuring an exquisitely stated melody by Abercrombie and Feldman using bowing and pizzicato. Abercrombie's playing seems at once effortless and the result of incredibly concentrated thought, able to mix joy and pathos within a single phrase. Baron, usually quite unbridled, displayed a touching light side.

After the swinging "So Weary", the highlight of the evening came in the form of "Convolution". After a jerky opening with pizzicato violin and atonal plucking by Abercrombie, Baron joined in with intermittent outbursts. Very quickly, the jam got very bizarre, rounded out by Mcguirk's thick bowing. Abercrombie's playing gained velocity. Baron, who had been holding back all set, took full opportunity to let loose. He dropped into a funky fusion break and Abercrombie left the audience stunned by his best guitar god approximation. Leaving all reserve aside, Abercrombie followed Baron's furious lead and just wailed; playing rock riffs with full sustain and long shrieking notes. The Jazz Standard was temporarily transformed into the Fillmore West and the set ended to thunderous applause and hooting, appropriate for an arena rock act.

The second set began where the first left off. "On the Loose", which commenced in a moody vein, soon gained energy and had Abercrombie shifting back to the rock pyrotechnics that ended the first set. Beginning slowly, by the end Abercrombie was playing lightning fast triplets over Baron's demonic drum work (please excuse these overused rock clichés but for once they are accurate). Abercrombie indirectly commented on this drastic stylistic reversal by telling the audience after the piece "my main influences are Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery. Can't you tell?" and introducing the group as "Shrapnel". "The lovely ballad "Spring Song" for his second most recent ECM album "Open Land" marked a return to placidity. This slower piece gave the audience the opportunity to appreciate McGuirk, a last-minute replacement for the advertised Marc Johnson. Playing with these three phenomenal musicians and with little preparation, Mcguirk did an extremely good job. The title track from "Open Land" followed, one of the best pieces of modern fusion written in the last 10 years. Working from a swinging pace, the tempo increased and featured a frantic solo by Feldman, full of thrilling chromatic runs. Abercrombie's solo began very quietly, full of subtlety. As it progressed, Abercrombie took off, trilling mercilessly as Feldman sawed away as accompaniment. This led back to the melody, recapitulated in various tempos and feels and then exploding into a reprise of the heavy rock feel of the earlier pieces. One of the best shows of this year ended with a complete turnaround-a very traditional piece in the style of Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt. The quartet's playing was quite straight, settling down the audience after over two hours of volatility. Abercrombie and company confirmed that this extremely talented and surprising tight group could run the gamut of music and make it all fantastic.



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