John Abercrombie Quartet
Central Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz event
Sunday, April 15, 2007
The dedicated touring ensemble is a rarity in today's jazz scenea thing of rare beauty to cherish in these times of collective projects, pick-up bands and ad hoc all-star ensembles. Guitarist John Abercrombie brought his long-running quartet to the expansive Hilton Ballroom to promote their third album together, the aptly titled The Third Quartet (ECM, 2007). Slowly unveiling a diverse array of techniques and stylistic inclinations, the four members of the group demonstrated the intuitive camaraderie only a veteran ensemble can deliver.
Abercrombie's group consists of a stable of renowned band leaders. Bassist Marc Johnson, violinist Mark Feldman and drummer Joey Baron all lead their own ensembles in addition to being in-demand side-men. An artist hardly in need of introduction, Abercrombie was one of the first guitarists to help solidify the so-called ECM sound. His varied approach stretches well beyond the label's trademark chamber-esque aesthetic, however. While his studio albums present remarkable range and creativity, a live performance reveals much more about the nature and intensity of his wide-ranging interests.
Broken in two long sets, the difference between the impressionistic first half and the raucous second couldn't have been greater. Gradually ebbing from atmospheric opening flourishes into the head of the tune, the quartet embarked on a lengthy version of the melodious "Dansir," from Class Trip (ECM, 2004). Following a fairly traditional solo order, the tune served as an excellent introduction to each player's personality.
Introducing the next tune, the self-titled track from Class Trip, Abercrombie winked devilishly and muttered to Feldman and company to "go out." Scrabbling guitar, scrawling violin, buzzing bass and tinkling percussion slowly transformed from a textural mosaic into a swinging mid-tempo ballad that alternated lyrical romanticism with dark tension. Demonstrating a humorous sensibility, Abercrombie even dropped a quote from "Frere Jacques" into his solo, much to the amusement of his band mates and the audiencea trait all the band members shared throughout the evening.
Drawing material from their new record, "Vignt Six" continued the romantic thread until the closing tune of the first seta deconstructed cover of Ornette Coleman's "Round Trip." Intriguingly arranged, the tune began with a harmonically inventive drum solo from Baron, who alternated his statements with Johnson before Abercrombie and Feldman entered.
After a brief break, the quartet returned for the most adventurous music of the evening. Opening with "Banshee," from their new record, they offered up a lively reading of the restrained studio version. Accelerating from a rubato pulse to a brisk free-bop sprint, Feldman and Abercrombie took off on spirited, exploratory tangents before the quartet reconvened to deconstruct the tune. At a hushed volume, bowed bass and violin droned in unison over skittering percussion while Abercrombie built feedback loops from delicate picking and EFX pedals. Fading out on the electronic loops and subtle tribal hand drumming of Baron, the tune dissipated with a mysterious fade.
"Wishing Bell" and a serene cover of Bill Evans' "Epilogue" followed, providing momentary respite. Johnson took a gorgeous arco solo on "Epilogue" that was heartrendingly tender. But solace was short lived, as the quartet suddenly embarked on their final tune of the night with no warning or introduction.
They closed the evening with an epic variation of "On The Loose," taken from their first record, Cat 'N' Mouse (ECM, 2002). Baron introduced the piece with one of two vastly different drum solos, each offering knowing send-ups of rock and funk clichés that were both humorous and virtuosic. Baron's amusing asides and witty interjections never overshadowed the music at hand, though. Flailing with boundless enthusiasm and puckish glee, whether pounding out snappy funk accents, grinding into a stirring blues shuffle or rattling off machine-gun-inspired speed-metal fills, he elevated the bandstand.
Aroused by Baron's enthusiasm, Abercrombie joined the fray, stomping on a few EFX pedals and cranking up the volume. Churning out smoldering blues riffs while launching jagged linear jumps up and down the fretboard, he even indulged in some of Baron's frenetic free play with his own chaotic skronk guitar. Similarly invigorated, Feldman took an unaccompanied violin cadenza of such passionately unbridled energy that even his band mates looked stunned. After numerous sidelong excursions, the quartet suddenly snapped back into unison, ending the tune with a tight recapitulation of the angular post-modern head, demonstrating an almost telepathic level of interplay.
While studio recordings sometimes sacrifice energy for fidelity, live recordings often suffer the opposite fate. Nothing, however, compares to witnessing a live performance by a longstanding group such as this. Some things just need to be seen to be heard.