Despite their popularity, organ trios have a bad reputation in jazz. Perhaps it's the greasy grooves, or the domination of too many heavy-handed B-3 players. Guitarist John Abercrombie got his start three decades ago in Johnny "Hammond" Smith's organ combo. But since then, he's shown he's anything but a stereotypical chord cruncher or fatback slinger. He's traversed modal and bop, waxed lyrical and ethereal, gone all-out free and dug deep in rock and he seems sincere about each and every journey he takes. Abercrombie seems simply incapable of hitting a false note.
In addition to the multitudes of other multifaceted projects he leads or to which he contributes, Abercrombie in 1992 formed this organ trio featuring the outstanding Cleveland native Dan Wall on organ and the indescribably sensitive and intuitive Adam Nussbaum on drums. Abercrombie was already (and still is) a contributor to Jeff Palmer's organ quartets. But in Palmer's group there is a conscientious, almost cloying need to expand upon Larry Young's innovations. Abercrombie's trio, on the other hand, is often inaccurately branded with continuing the Larry Young tradition (as is any organ group that isn't mining the groove). But there's something different and more exciting going on here. This is a trio that is dependent on one another's aural creations. Much like Bill Evans' best trios (with Scott Lafaro or Marc Johnson on bass) and especially the Motian / Frisell / Lovano trio this is a creative, synergistic musical unit.
Perhaps because this is a live event (recorded at the Visiones club in New York July 13-15, 1996), Tactics is the best of this trio's three discs (there's also 1992's While We're Young and 1993's Speak of the Devil ). It's an ideal showcase for all of Abercrombie's capabilities too (not counting his guitar synth work, which is not highlighted here).
As one expects from an ECM production, it's beautifully recorded. Tactics sounds as if it was made in a pristine studio. And though every note Abercrombie, Wall and Nussbaum play is improvised (based on certain simple patterns), none fashion anything less than a thoughtful, unpredictable and amazing pattern. Perhaps Abercrombie's guitar dominates; but it is so only in how well Wall and Nussbaum cushion the guitarist's ethereal inventions. Included are two overly-performed standards ("You and the Night and the Music" and "Long Ago and Far Away," which further link this group to the Evans and Motian trios). But Abercrombie and crew take these tried-and-true pieces to different spheres than one is accustomed. Nussbaum contributes one original, Dan Wall has two (including the surprisingly funky "Bo Diddy") and Abercrombie includes three of his own ("Sweet Sixteen," "Last Waltz" and the superior Coltrane ode of "Dear Rain," his inventive mix of "Dear Lord" and "After the Rain").
Tactics is very highly recommended and, thus far, one of the best new releases of 1997.