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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.

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