Guitarist John Abercrombie, a progressive influence on jazz guitar for over 35 years, is playing better than ever these days, as was evident at a recent Birdland set (Sep. 3rd) with his quartet featuring Mark Feldman (violin), Marc Johnson (acoustic bass) and Joey Baron (drums). This particular combination, veterans of three CDs together, have developed an acutely
empathetic rapport, resulting in collective musical journeys that seem to unfold before the audience's very ears.
Opening with "Dancir," Abercrombie's moody arpeggios were quickly engaged by Feldman's chirpy sound effects and unusual melodies, underpinned by Johnson's restless bass and Baron's witty extroverted drumming. Favoring innuendo over declarative
statements, Abercrombie's smooth hypnotic style remained politely lyrical, even at its chromatic extremes, while Baron proved a dynamic and
imaginative collaborator, employing a variety of tones and textures over his kit, the density of his ideas never overshadowing the musical moment. The group hit an early peak at the end of Feldman's solo on "Spring Song," negotiated a series of spontaneous mood swings during "Wishing Well" and showed a
collective sense of humor and playfulness over "Vignt Six". The closer, a harmonically complex bop opus, boasted strong solos from guitar and violin, followed by freeform exploratory duets from guitar and drums, then violin and bass.
There is world music and then there is music of the world. The former is often treacly and colonial; the
latter, as exemplified by drummer Harris Eisenstadt's Guewel project, is sincere and probing. Eisenstadt, celebrating the group's titular release on Clean Feed at the Douglass Street Music Collective Sep. 7th, didn't learn about African rhythms from field recordings or youtube clips. Time spent in Senegal gave him a
thorough and respectful understanding of that
country's musical history. Perhaps an entire album given over to either traditional drum patterns or pop music would be cloying over time. But Eisenstadt, in a masterful stroke of anthropological arranging,
combined the two in medley or, more accurately, sandwich fashion, the tribal rhythms giving way, often through free jazz squalls, to catchy danceable melodies and back again. If there were an antecedent, it would be Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, though obviously rooted in a much different culture. But like that group, Eisenstadt's quintet was also horn heavy but in an unusual textural setup: Nate Wooley
(trumpet) and Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet) were the female voices of the village while Josh Sinton (baritone sax) and Mark Taylor (French horn) were their
partners. The CD was presented in order and played almost exactly to its track lengths yet still managed to sound spontaneous and celebratory, particularly in the transitions to and from the pop material, taken from the '70s to today.
On the afternoon of Sep. 10th, as dog days of summer gave way to the crisper days of some other animal and Fashion Week descended upon midtown's Bryant Park, Junior Mance sat at a vaudevillian-style painted piano near the northwest entrance, under the stern gaze of the statue of noted abolitionist and
businessman William Earle Dodge. Officeworkers on their lunch breaks rubbed elbows with fasting models, blithely unaware of a legend in their midst. Why was Mance there, trinkle-tinkling on the keys? Amazingly enough, to provide incidental music for the Word for Word series at the Bryant Park Reading Room, an
outdoor extension of the New York Public Library on the far side of the park. The theme of the day was The Harlem Renaissance, the multi-decade movement that established Harlem as a cultural center and the African-American as an artist, writer and thinker for the rest of the country. Mance, having begun his career in the late '40s, was not a direct participant in the movement, but was certainly a beneficiary. Three actors read poetry by early Harlem luminaries
Wallace Thurman, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston in a performance piece as Mance offered
occasional period music behind them. Perhaps Mance could - and what better pianist could one choose - have played more but the little he did in conjunction with the verses made quite clear the rhythmic synergy that makes jazz sound like poetry and poetry of the era sound like jazz.
Christian/McBride/Nicholas Payton/Mark Whitfield