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The John Abercrombie Quartet at Birdland, NYC

Budd Kopman By

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The John Abercrombie Quartet
Birdland
New York City, New York
Thursday, September 4, 2008

This gig was in the second night of a four-night stand for the quartet consisting of guitarist John Abercrombie, violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron. The group absolutely cooked during the early set before a three-quarter full house.

Their last appearance at Birdland was in April of 2007, supporting the recent release of their third album on the ECM label, Third Quartet.

Abercrombie's music which, if it needs a label, can only be called "modern jazz," is a volatile mixture of strong rhythms, abstract harmony and sinuous melodies. Volatile, because Abercrombie highly values freedom for each performer, with the result being that the mix is constantly in flux and mutating.

The engine of the band is, without a doubt, the ever-ebullient Baron, closely supported, pushed and pulled by Johnson. Since Abercrombie's tunes tend to not have strong, easily identifiable harmonic and melodic movement, the extended improvisations rely on Baron and Johnson to lead the band, while remaining constantly responsive to changes implied by the soloists.

While everyone soloed at one time or another, Abercrombie and Feldman are the main solo voices, and the clash of their personal styles is partly what makes this music so interesting. Abercrombie can float above the prevailing rhythm, only to drop solidly into it at a moment's notice. When combined with his unique way of phrasing, one that uses many slides and slurs, his lines tend to snake through the rhythm and harmony, falling in and out of sync.

Feldman's style could not offer a greater contrast with the leader's. Long a champion of the merging of classical and jazz techniques, his classical rhythmic feel and melodic phrasing rub against the prevailing current established by the rest of the band. The resulting tension becomes a constituent of the background accompaniment, though it's easily forgotten when Feldman unleashes a fiery solo.

The set, which seemed to fly by, was actually extended while consisting of a mere four tunes, the first a burning version (beginning with Baron's introduction) of "Dansir" from Class Trip (ECM, 2004). "Spring Song" from Open Land (ECM, 1999), which was never recorded by this particular band, came next, oscillating between a triple-time waltz and triplet duple meter.

The last two tunes were both from Third Quartet— "Wishing Bell" and Ornette Coleman's "Round Trip," further demonstrating how connected the band really is. Abercrombie clearly does not need to stay in the spotlight, and indeed seemed to revel in what Baron, Johnson and Feldman were doing at any moment.

The set was marvelous in its off-hand group virtuosity, with both the players and the audience enjoying every moment.

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