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Live Reviews

John Abercrombie Twofer

By Published: March 8, 2004
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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