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John Abercrombie Tribute Concert at Roulette

Tyran Grillo By

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John Abercrombie: Timeless—A Tribute To His Life And Music
Brooklyn, NY
March 26, 2018

When John Abercrombie turned off the amplifier of life in 2017, the world lost not only one of its most distinctive guitarists but also one of jazz's brightest souls. As made clear by those still casting shadows in his light, he was someone whose midnight oil burned so that others would know what lay ahead. Even so, under cover of a balmy evening in Brooklyn, a convocation of indebted musicians saw fit to take a patient look back at his extensive career in a star-studded tribute—"star" being the operative word, as the depth of Abercrombie's creative sky was only emphasized by the twinkling it afforded to every constellation he animated. At the heart of his sonic fission was a personal commitment to playing at the highest level, regardless of context. Such were the sentiments expressed in a 2013 interview clip played both before and after the concert, in which he professed, "You have to hear yourself from the inside," and by that statement articulated an organic consequence of his sound. But, while listeners might very well have gotten only half of the story, what separated Abercrombie's playing from the pack was how he always made us feel like we were getting the full story. For confirmation, one need only spin the globe of his catalog and stop on any given track, wherein you'll be met by a narrative terrain replete with beginning, middle, and end.

In that regard, Abercrombie understood both the melodic nature of his material and the material nature of his melodies. This more than any other aspect of his music came out in the textural spectrum unraveled by his soundest interpreters. The concert featured seven distinct configurations, as if each were a link—one for every decade he lived— in the chain of his earthly transit. Said chain was more than a metaphor; it was an active part of the program, as at least one musician from each group carried over into the next. First to take the stage was the band featured on Wait Till You See Her (2009, ECM) with violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Thomas Morgan, and drummer Joey Baron. Guitarist Bill Frisell substituted at the helm, bringing his own mixture of charm and rigor. He and Morgan began in duet with "Epilogue," thereby setting a tone of joyful elegy. In so doing, they tapped into their dedicatee's fearless intrepidness. Following this were two offerings from the full quartet: "Sad Song" and "Anniversary Waltz." Each was a fluid rustle made manifest by artists working at the highest level of reverence. Baron and Frisell moved in tandem, one the wind to the other's lilting shadow, while Morgan upped the melodic quotient exponentially. With so much heartfelt energy swirling around him, Feldman dipped into every corner of his palette, his bow turning into one of the most evocative brushes of the performance.

More than anything, this quartet upheld Abercrombie's music as a gradual emergence of self-awareness, humble and integrated, so that when Frisell passed the reins to Nels Cline—leading a group with pianist Marc Copland, drummer Peter Erskine, and Morgan—one could only feel it as an organic progression. Referencing Characters (1978, ECM), Cline opened with the unaccompanied "Memoirs" before rowing the waters of "Boat Song." His programmatic details (use of harmonics, playing behind the bridge, etc.) were artful and effective, and his communication with Copland held Abercrombie's spirit that much closer to the ground for as long as possible.

Erskine held his post in a trio setting with bassist Marc Johnson and pianist Eliane Elias, who together offered scintillating renditions of "John's Waltz" and "Jazz Folk." Elias enchanted with her verbose soloing, backed by Erskine's masterful cymbal work, capping Johnson's heavier waves. The bassist yielded a second trio as Baron and guitarist John Scofield jumped in for "Even Steven," a nod to Solar: The Bebop Album (1984, Palo Alto) that epitomized the romantic optimism of its composer. Scofield likewise cleaved his axe into the following setup—fleshed out by saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Adam Nussbaum—for a dip into Within A Song (2012, ECM). Being treated to such fresh takes on that return-to-roots album's "Easy Reader" and its title tune underscored Abercrombie's mature approach to syncopation, as evidenced by a sufficiently fueled rhythm section and in the controlled demolitions of Lovano and Scofield's dialoguing throughout.


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