John Abercrombie / John Menegon / Chet and Jim Doxas: Ottawa, Canada, September 18, 2010

John Kelman BY

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John Abercrombie / Chet Doxas / John Menegon / Jim Doxas
Café Paradiso
Ottawa, Canada
September 18, 2010

Amongst the elite of mid-to-senior-generation jazz guitarists including Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Bill Frisell and Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie stands alone. Every one of these six-stringers has a definitive voice, and considerable improvisational skill; equally, however, each of them possesses a clear signature—key phrases or linear devices that crop up periodically in their music, defining their unique identities. Speaking with Montreal-based Jim Doxas, before his two sets with Abercrombie at Ottawa's premiere jazz club, Café Paradiso, the drummer's respect for the guitarist, and appreciation of the ECM recording artist's ability to be both instantly recognizable and unfailingly unpredictable was clear: "He has a sound," Doxas said, "and then he improvises."

That may seem like a hair-splitting distinction and reductionist definition amidst Abercrombie's impressive peer group, since every one of them has a sound and improvises; but there's something about the way Abercrombie approaches each and every tune, each and every night, that eschews predictable patterns and, instead, remains consistently fresh and lucid, whether it's on his own material, that of others, or well-known songs drawn from The Great American Songbook—all three of which were in evidence during his two sold-out Paradiso sets. Abercrombie was invited, along with bassist John Menegon, to join Doxas and his brother Chet Doxas, a fine Montreal-based saxophonist whose debut as a leader, Sidewalk Etiquette (Justin Time, 2006), was a refreshing mix of intelligent writing and impassioned playing and whose latest, Big Sky (Justin Time, 2010), expands on those qualities with nearly the same quartet, also featuring brother Jim and bassist Zach Lober.

How Big Sky departs from Sidewalk Etiquette is its use of guitar (Ben Charest) rather than piano (John Roney), and so Paradiso's similarly configured group was perfect to explore two of Doxas' tunes—the balladic title track from Big Sky, as well as Sidewalk Etiquette's "Unsung," dedicated to the often overlooked Jimmy Giuffre, both of which appeared in the second set, and gave everyone plenty of breathing room. Doxas' tone on tenor is surprisingly warm, but equally strong and present; Abercrombie and Menegon were amplified, but only to achieve a mix with the Doxas brothers, who played completely acoustically, without the aid of mikes and a PA system. That the quartet's sound managed to fill Paradiso—with its partially open but still dividing wall running through the center of the room presenting something of a challenge—while never compromising on the inherent subtlety and nuance of its performance, kept its audience focused and captivated throughout its two one-hour sets.

From left: John Abercrombie, John Menegon, Jim Doxas

Beyond Chet's two compositional contributions, the first set split material by Abercrombie—two tunes from Wait Till You See Her (ECM, 2009), the effortlessly fluid "Line-Up," which opened the evening, and dark-hued ballad, "Sad Song"—a more groove-centric piece from the Montreal-born, upstate New York-based Menegon ("Motion Detector"), and, from another Canadian expat, legendary composer/arranger Gil Evans, "Time of the Barracudas," here performed with a prerequisite combination of unfettered freedom and emergent swing. Chet sat out on a trio version of "How Deep is the Ocean?," where Abercrombie's instinctive ability to think in broader terms resulted in a stunning, lengthy solo possessed of an unmistakable arc, built from a seemingly endless wellspring of compositionally focused ideas. Despite a dark tone that ranged from clean to warmly overdriven, Abercrombie maintained pristine clarity throughout, including clear delineation of the notes in his rich chordal voicings; another defining characteristic, given the challenge of retaining such a woody tone amongst the frequencies surrounding it from his band mates.

Menegon, best-known for his work with two now-departed and almost diametrically opposed saxophone greats in the latter parts of their careers—Dewey Redman, and David "Fathead" Newman, whose swan song, The Blessing (HighNote, 2010) came out earlier this year—was, perhaps, the biggest surprise of the evening, if only because of an audience familiar with Abercrombie (for obvious reasons), and with the Montreal-based Doxas brothers, because of their regular Ottawa appearances in a variety of contexts, together and alone. With a robust tone that supported deep, resonant low notes as much as it did lither excursions in the instrument's upper register, Menegon created both a pliant and unshakable foundation, and an equal extemporaneous partner who, as much as anyone else in the quartet, pushed and pulled the music to new and unexpected places.

Jim Doxas, whose most visible gig is with legendary Canadian pianist Oliver Jones, remains something of a hidden Canadian treasure. A drummer as charismatic to watch as he is to hear—so visibly engaged in the music, and as content to create a pulse with nothing more than a spare bass drum as he is with an inherently elastic dexterity and thorough command of every timbral and melodic nuance available from his drums and cymbals. While his various trade-off exchanges with Abercrombie and/or Chet were impressive, and his rare full solos even more so, it was his complete and committed interaction with the group that was his greatest, most definitive strength. Few drummers in Canada (or elsewhere, for that matter), can match Jim's set of ears, or his almost puckish playfulness, a characteristic shared with brother Chet, the two exchanging a lot of knowing smiles throughout the evening. If there's a drummer to whom Doxas can be compared, it's the more well-known Brian Blade. Not that the two share much in terms of personal style, but both approach their instrument beyond purely rhythmic terms; instead, both think on broader, musical terms, and share a common bond of absolute freedom within the confines of compositional form.

A characteristic that, in fact, was in great abundance at Café Paradiso on September 18, 2010. Abercrombie may have been playing with a bad back that was clearly bothering him between sets, but you'd never have known it once he was onstage playing. The fourth night of a five-night run that ended the following evening in Montreal, it was a brand-new quartet, having never played together before its two nights at The Rex in Toronto a couple nights prior. By the time they hit Ottawa, Abercrombie, Menegon, and Chet and Jim Doxas were already well in stride; the good news is that the Montreal gig was recorded for broadcast on CBC Radio, and filmed for a possible DVD release. The empathy and invention shared by this group is simply too good to go undocumented.

Photo Credit

All Photos: John R. Fowler

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