The John Abercrombie Quartet at Birdland

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The John Abercrombie Quartet
Birdland
New York, NY
April 11, 2007, 9:00 PM

This night was the beginning of a four-night stand and the band had just finished a European tour. It became clear quite quickly that they were in a good mood since what sounded like tuning up evolved very smoothly into the first tune of the set.

While faking out the audience about a song's actual beginning is not new, in this case the deception set up "Banshee"—which is also the first tune from the group's latest record The Third Quartet—perfectly. Baron's very tight cymbals set the tone, not just for this tune but for the whole set. Abercrombie's short, punchy phrases hinted at the haunting theme, which was not actually played until all four players were equally engaged.

Having listened carefully to and reviewed the album, I was primarily interested in what they were going to do live. No matter how spontaneous musicians try to be when performing for a recording microphone, the studio captures a mere shadow of what can happen on stage in front of a live audience.

To a man, the band would no doubt say that Abercrombie creates the opportunity for real interactive freedom both through his compositions and his stage demeanor. Not a naturally extroverted player, Abercrombie speaks through implication and abstraction as represented by his elusive harmonic constructions. His lines have a slithering quality due to his use of his thumb instead of a pick and the many slurs and slides that are part of his sound.

As "Banshee" gathered steam, the centrality of Baron (with the support of Johnson) to the quartet's sound grew apparent. With his trademark Cheshire-cat smile and infectious enthusiasm, Baron pushed the group while maintaining a constant connection with Abercrombie.

Mark Feldman, who looked a little under the weather, or just tired, played very well when he got up from his chair in the back and came to the microphone. Thus, what on the recording was very close and equal interaction came off during this on-location set as the trio plus Feldman.

Balancing the hot opening number, Ornette Coleman's "Round Trip," which has a very distinctive rhythmic "melody," closed the set. Johnson came to the fore and delivered a blistering introductory solo with Baron urging him on.

The set as a whole proved exhilarating in that the divisions between mainstream, modern and avant-garde jazz were blurred, creating music that was just plain "Ellingtonian good," with the only predictable thing about the performance being its cohesion, vibrancy and good nature. Bravo.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: guitar; Mark Feldman: violin; Joey Baron: drums; Marc Johnson: bass.

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