RIP, John Abercrombie
Published on: August 23, 2017 | Last Updated: August 23, 2017 9:21 AM EDT
Jazz guitar great John Abercrombie John Rogers / ECM Records
Guitarist John Abercrombie, a supremely eloquent and lyrical player whose career over the last four decades included seminal jazz fusion music and eminently refined ECM albums alike, died Tuesday of heart failure. He was 72.
Abercrombie had had health problems in recent years, including a stroke earlier this year. John died peacefully after a long illness at Hudson Valley Hospital outside of Peekskill, N.Y., in the presence of his family.
Born in Port Chester in Westchester County, New York in 1944, Abercrombie did not begin playing guitar until he was 14. A few years later, in 1962, he attended the Berklee College of Music. His breakthrough album was the 1975 ECM disc Timeless, which featured him with drummer Jack DeJohnette and keyboardist Jan Hammer. Abercrombie would record more than 30 records as a leader, the bulk of which were on ECM, including this year’s album Up and Coming, which featured him with his latest working band, which included pianist Marc Copland, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron.
John Abercrombie Quartet – Flipside
Pianist Copland, who played with Abercrombie off and on for almost 50 years, wrote me in an email Tuesday night: “To my mind John was his generation’s Jim Hall.
“His playing was always oriented around interplay with others, harmonic richness and flexibility, and tended more towards understatement a time when so many guitarists were moving in the opposite direction.. Like his music, John never aggressively sought the limelight; he simply tried to make the best music he could.”
Copland continued: “Piano and guitar together can be tricky, but with John the collaboration was effortless. Possibly this is because of our long-shared musical journey and aesthetic, but I think it goes deeper than that. John was a real listener. He taught me by example early on that complementing other players to create a group sound and feel, with interplay, can make a band sound larger and fuller than the sum of its parts. And it’s immensely satisfying on a very deep level. Or as we like to say: it’s a lot of fun.”
Other recordings from the late 1970s on featured Abercrombie with a who’s who of collaborators of his generation, including pianist Richie Beirach, Canadian multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson, pianist Andy Laverne, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and saxophonist Charles Lloyd. The co-op trio Gateway, which released four albums on ECM, consisted of Abercrombie, drummer DeJohnette, and bassist Dave Holland.
Two more examples of Abercrombie playing superbly and in elite company, plus a lengthy interview with him:
Abercrombie, Erskine, Mintzer, Pattitucci: Bass Desires
Peter Erskine – John Abercrombie – Marc Johnson: Furs On Ice
Conversations with John Abercrombie
Abercrombie twice played Ottawa in recent years — first at Cafe Paradiso in September 2010 with the Montrealers Jim and Chet Doxas and bassist John Menegon, and then in February 2014 with his quartet as part of the Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival.
My former colleague Doug Fischer interviewed Abercrombie before his quartet’s concert in Ottawa and shared with me the transcript of his lengthy interview with him. Here it is:
Q: Let’s start with 39 Steps, your new album with a new lineup, including pianist Marc Copland. It’s been about 30 years since you last recorded an album as leader of a group that contains a piano player. Why did you think it was time?
A: I don’t know. I’m not sure. I think what happened is that in the last group I had I played the only chordal instrument. It had the violinist Mark Feldman and Joey Baron (drums) and Marc Johnson (bass). We spent about six years together, playing with that configuration, and I guess I thought it was time to play again with someone who could comp with me, someone who would also play a chordal instrument, and give me that kind of support. And the ideal person for me was Marc because we’ve played together since we were kids. We played when Marc still played saxophone and he was called Marc Cohen. Playing with Marc is like coming home for me — it’s comfortable but it gives you a sense that you can free to play any way you choose. So we have this long, on-going relationship — of course, during these past decades it was guitar and piano — and we have done quite a few tours and recordings together for labels other than ECM — which has been my label for a long time.
Q: So, how did this latest group come about?
A: Well, I thought about getting this group together for a while, and once I did, I booked a tour to see if a band like this would work, with Marc and Joey and Drew (Gress on bass) because we had all played together pretty much in different bands over the years. So, I got this tour together and we were coming to Switzerland to play and (ECM founder and producer) Manfred Eicher happened to be in the audience that night. It was in Lugano. And immediately after the concert he came backstage and said, ‘We really have to record this group.’ It was in the back of mind anyway, you know, and I know Marc had always dreamed of recording for ECM, just to get in on the experience of what it’s like to get a really great piano sound on a recording for the first time in his life. So, it all kind of worked out — it was in my mind to make a recording, Manfred got things rolling when he heard us play and a year later we made the recording. So, the idea came from me and it also came from him. It was kind of a co-operative thing once Manfred made the approach. Everybody in the band was good with the idea to record the album as soon as we could arrange it.
Q: So, how far along in the tour where you when this happened, and how did the music change between then and when you made the recording a year later?
A: I actually can’t remember exactly where we were in the tour. I think it was early on. Manfred was there because there is a studio there that he likes to use. He was in town to record Carla Bley and Steve Swallow, and so he ended up in the audience. And also, Craig Taborn opened for us, he was playing just before us, and he was someone Manfred was interested in as well. So, a lot of things came together. It was a multi-purpose concert, a real ECM evening — Craig ended up recording for ECM and my band ended up doing the same. It couldn’t have been better. So yeah, to answer your question, the music evolved quite a bit between then and our recording. It always does when you tour and play together in stretches like that. But, you know, even so, when you get into the studio, there is yet another vibe that happens. You tend not to play as much, as many notes, you don’t stretch out quite as much, just because of the confines of a studio. Your only audience are the other musicians and whoever is in the recording booth — Manfred as the producer in this case. It’s not like you are playing to an audience sitting in chairs listening carefully to you. So you play a little differently. You finish a tune and there is no applause, nothing coming back at you except what Manfred might say — you know, something like, ‘That was good, you should come in here and listen to that,’ or ‘That was too fast or too busy, can we try again?’ That’s his job, to hear what we don’t hear. He’s really the fifth member of the band.
Q: While we’re on the subject of ECM, can we explore it a bit more? Everyone talks about the ECM vibe, the contemplative, slowly unfurling style Manfred Eicher encourages. How does it affect what you do in the studio? How does it manifest itself?
A: In some ways, it is no different than any other recording situation — it’s just musicians going into a studio. Manfred does do some live recordings but he prefers studio recordings because there is more control over where you place the microphones, you don’t have the variables of a concert where things can go wrong. In the studio if things go wrong, you stop things and fix them. I have never been in a recording studio, really, where the people in the booth were not interested in making a very good album. It’s often a light-hearted atmosphere but serious at the same time. People aren’t there to have a party. The idea is to make music that is as close as a live recording as possible.
Q: So how does Manfred Eicher change things?
A: As you say, ECM recordings for the most part tend to be more reflective, and that is Manfred’s doing. He tends to hear things as a sort of panorama — that’s the word he uses. I like to say he uses words to describe music rather than using notes. He has a way of doing that, a talent for it. He’ll say things like, ‘Maybe we can put a little more silver in the drums,’ and what he means is, ‘Can we make the cymbals a little brighter or give them a bit more of a ring.’ He is always using these analogies to get things across. I think that is one of the reasons ECM music sounds like it does. He is also very meticulous about the sounds he gets. He’s looking for a pristine, clean sound. But also, for the most part, he records musicians who share his vision for the music, like-minded musicians who don’t want to make a standard album. They want to make special music but also, since we’re jazz musicians, we want to play some of the things we’ve come up with while touring or rehearsing. We want to play jazz, we want spontaneity. But we also want to go into these other areas, where things are bit more atmospheric or romantic, more lyrical perhaps.
Q: That must lead to disagreements in the studio …
A: Well, sure. Generally, ECM suits me well because that’s how I hear music anyway, the lyrical side. But I still want it to sound like jazz, and I know Manfred understands that. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have discussions, arguments, about this from time to time, on specific compositions, or in places where we have a different vision for the music. It’s a creative tension. I’d put it this way: we have an understanding that I want to play an experimental style sometimes and I am willing to take many risks, but that I also want to play jazz. That happens whether it’s Manfred or someone else. With Manfred, he has a certain sensibility, being European and listening to the music he did growing up, more classically influenced. That’s different than someone who grew up in New York. I grew up listening to Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, guys with blues backgrounds. So sometimes you have to put the two things together and that’s what happens with me and Manfred.
Q: So, tell me about the Ottawa gig? Will you be bringing the quartet from 39 Steps and playing mainly tunes from the album?
A: Yes, the exact same band. It is not always the case because these guys are busy. They all play with other bands, they all have their own projects, so we’re lucky that this short tour will have the band that played on the album. It just worked out that way. I am very happy about it. We’re starting out playing in Oakland at Yoshi’s and then we play a couple of nights in Seattle before we go to Edmonton and then come over to Ottawa. And we will be playing four nights in New York before we go west. So, it will be like making a short run with the record through North America. A lot of miles in less than two weeks. And yeah, we’ll be playing mostly things from 39 Steps but we don’t just play the CD because that’s not how we operate. The songs on the CD are very likeable, though, they are fun to play. It’s not like we’re going out there and hashing over the recording, like it’s a chore. The music is fun. The big difference performing it live is that we might get a little more heated, not as subdued, we’ll stretch things out more. It’s how you stay fresh after such a long time in the business. Also, you know, I tend to play less in a recording studio than I do when I am playing on a stage. Fewer notes. Just less stuff in general.
Q: The titles of the compositions on 39 Steps intrigue me, and I’ve noticed that they seem to confuse quite a few reviewers who can’t find the link between the compositions named for Hitchcock movies and the compositions themselves. What’s that about?
A: (Laughs) It’s really simple in a way. Take 39 Steps. When I finished writing it I counted the number of measures in the composition. I always do this because I am interested in the length of a song. So I counted this one a couple of times because 39 is an unusual number of measures for a song. So you can see where that led me — I thought, why not 39 Steps as a title because a measure is like a step? And I like the movie a lot. It’s always been one of my favourite movies. I wouldn’t say I am a giant Hitchcock fan. I do like his movies and I really like that one. So, the title fit perfectly with the length of the song and my liking of the movie.
Q: And what about the rest of the titles with Hitchcock movie names?
A: I was just sitting around with a friend of mine one night, and we were playing a copy of the album that I got from the studio. It wasn’t entirely done yet. He really liked it, and he asked what I planned to call it and I said 39 Steps. And he said, ‘Well, you know, there are so many good Hitchcock titles.’ I asked him to name some, and he started to list them: Vertigo, Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound and so on. I thought, this could be really nice, why don’t I use more of these for the songs — which were mostly untitled at this point — because they are such good titles. So the titles don’t always relate to the songs — they are just nice titles, although some, like Vertigo, really do work. Vertigo is really an off-kilter tune. It is a simple tune but it divides up into different metric groups. It’s slow, and it starts out 4/4 and then goes to 6/4 and there is a bar of 7/4 in there and then it ends in 3/4. I also thought naming more tunes after Hitchcock would give the album a bit of a conceptual feel, if not exactly through the music then through the titles. So I ended up with a concept album without a musical concept (laughs).
Q: So, the titles came later, and they don’t really mean anything, they weren’t inspired by the movies?
A: Nope, the titles are just nice names. I like Hitchcock movies and I needed titles for the songs. Spellbound is another one that works though. When you listen to the tune you get this feeling of being lost a little bit. So that one works a little, too. But, you know, I almost always write and play a tune first and then come up with a title that seems to make sense. It’s very rare I have an idea for a title first and try to write something to fit that idea. So you have to look other places for titles. That’s the way it works for me. This is not the first time I’ve done something like this. I wrote a tune once called Sweet Sixteen that was 16 measures long. I had another one that was 26 measures long and I called that one Vingt-Six, which is 26 in French, because I thought the French sounded more, I don’t know, romantic. Things like that. I have always been kind of fond of a simple relationship between the structure of a tune and the name. One thing leads to another. I don’t go crazy about it. When I don’t have a title, I just mull titles over in my head. Lots of times, really, the title has nothing at all to do with the tune. It’s just a nice group of words that sound good to together. As it Stands is a ballad of mine, on the new album. That title actually came out in the studio. We finished recording it and someone asked how much time we had left in the studio and the recording engineer said, ‘Well, as it stands now …’ and I thought, Hey, that’s a great title.
Q: So, it’s a pretty random business?
A: Well, yeah, it is and it isn’t. When you are dealing with music without words then you have to look other places for titles. Maybe it comes from the mood of the music, maybe the number of measures, maybe some words that just pop up in your head, or it comes from something someone says. Some people like their songs to be tributes, maybe to other musicians or someone important. With Greenstreet (another title on 39 Steps), I was having a conversation with a friend and he knows how much I like those old noir films, like Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, great movies with Bogart and Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. He knows I like to impersonate Sidney Greenstreet, so he suggested I title a song Sidney Greenstreet. I said, that’s too far out, I don’t like that. But I thought Greenstreet is a nice name. It could be named for Graham Greene, for anything, although I know it was named for Sidney Greenstreet when I named it. If you listened to the tune you wouldn’t say the music sounds like Sidney Greenstreet looks. It’s just a nice title. That’s all.
Q: You’ve been playing a long time, since the 1960s. You turn 70 at the end of this year — sorry to remind you. I read a quote in which you said expanding boundaries is the single most important thing for you about playing music. How do you keep doing that after all this time?
A: It’s just in the nature of who you are. I am not sure it is something you plan to do. It’s more your attitude when you play music, even a tune you play over and over again — if you keep it fresh in your mind and you approach it with a fresh outlook, then it stays fresh. You don’t have find new and exciting types of music to play. I don’t need to come out with albums that blend Chinese and Korean music influences with bebop. I just keep pushing the music I play to new places. And, of course, you keep things fresh by changing the configuration of the bands you play with. You write different kinds of music for different musicians and different instruments. When I had the violin band with Mark Feldman the music was different from the music I have now with this group. I really wanted that change. So sometimes you find a situation that inspires you to think fresh. And although this is a tried and true lineup — piano, guitar, bass and drums is nothing new by any means — it’s just that I haven’t played in this kind of lineup for a while, and that makes it exciting and new for me. It helps if you don’t have a lot of preconceptions about what you are playing you can manage to keep it fresh. I think you can play in a band forever and make it fresh. When you think about a group like the Modern Jazz Quartet who played together for decades, I imagine they probably had nights where they went through the motions a little but a lot of other nights playing the same tunes where things just took off. That stuff just happens when your attitude is really good, when you approach things with an open mind. It has more to do with that that what tunes you’re playing.
Q: How does playing with a pianist change the way you play? Some guitarists say they try to play like pianist, lots of block chords. It seems to me that you don’t. You’re a more a linear player.
A: That’s right. I don’t. There is no way I can do as much or as well as a pianist, especially a guy like Marc, so why do it? I have more or less become like a horn player. I do some chordal work but not a lot. I try to stay out of Marc’s way. I don’t want to distract from his playing or interrupt what he’s doing. But I do also feel the freedom that if I do want to play some chords, it’s OK. I think of myself for the most part as the melodic instrument in the band — the frontline instrument. I play most of the melodies. My solos are all single notes. That hasn’t changed a lot with Marc. I have played that way for a long time, with a few chordal notes thrown in. I think that playing with Marc, I do player even fewer. I am not a fan of block chord style of guitar playing. It is hard to incorporate that with single-note solos style and make it still flow nicely. You don’t have the freedom of the two hands on guitar that you do with a piano. For the most part you are relegated to having the right hand control what the left hand is playing, and the right hand strikes the notes. So, no, I function more like a single-line soloist.
Q: You mentioned Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery earlier. And you have said that Jim Hall was a big influence. Who do you listen to — who do you like — among today’s younger guitar players?
A: I listen to a lot of younger players. I see it as sort of my duty to do that. I don’t go to many concerts. I live in country so I don’t get in my car a lot of drive into New York City to hear these guys play live. But I do go on the computer and hear things on YouTube. If I like something I will go to the musician’s site and learn more about them and their music.
Q: Who are some of those players?
A: Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mike Moreno, the kid from Norway, Lage Lund. Adam Rogers is a wonderful player. I heard a player yesterday from France, Sylvain Courtney, he’s just phenomenal — very fluid, and he plays only with his fingers. He doesn’t use a pick, so I assume he is a classically trained guitarist. He has a really good jazz feel, beautiful seamless lines. Just great stuff. I was really taken with him. When I hear stuff like that I get inspired. I think, man, these kids are playing all this great stuff, I better get on the ball (laughs). But you do have to accept your limitations to a certain point — more than that, you have to accept who you are and the music that is inside you. But the influence of these guys gets in there — all of the influences of all of the guitar players and musicians I have heard and liked over the years — they are all in there in my playing and at a certain point they crystallize and rub up against who you are and they all become part of your playing. But it’s still you. I get inspired all the time, by new things and even old things I have been hearing for years. It’s not like you try to copy them, of course, but you take the inspiration and you pick up the guitar and start to play.
Q: That’s interesting. A few years ago I interviewed a bunch of guitar players coming to the Ottawa Jazz Festival — Lionel Loueke, Mike Stern, Al Di Meola, Mimi Fox, others — and to a person they said they try to avoid listening to guitar players because it’s so easy to be influenced, by the sound, the tone, the style. But not you.
A: That’s not uncommon. A lot of people feel that way. It is interesting to me when I listen to a younger guitar player, someone in their late 20s or early 30s, and I hear them play so well. My question always is, ‘Where did that come from, how did they get that good?’ Because when I was in my late 20s and 30s, I didn’t play that good. I played good, but not as good as these people. So much has changed since I was that age. We’re talking, 50 or 60 years later. The type of music is so much different, what’s available to them and how easy it is available, the way they study, their influences — there are so many different influences easily available to hear. And they don’t seem afraid to absorb these influences. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t mind being influenced. I have never worried about it. I think it’s good. But not everyone feels that way.
Q: What about avant-garde guitarists like Mary Halvorson? Do you listen to her, and other guitarists who seriously bend traditions? Some of her stuff really comes out of left field. I like it, especially her new album, Illusionary Sea. What’s your take on that?
A: Yes I listen to her. And, yeah, that is totally from left field. It is so far different from what I do. Mind you, I have done some things that sound something like that, some real free playing — stuff that sounds like paint peeling off the wall, some of it, when I play it anyway. She has taken avant-garde concepts and organized them into a specific kind of music. There is a lot of that going on today. A lot of musicians who play in this style, for lack of a better word, they don’t play free … random, not really. A lot of it is very written. Which is a big difference between music from my time and some of today’s music. Things tend to be written out a lot more today and the improvisation, while important, often seems to be very secondary. I am not saying that’s good or bad, it’s just different, a change from the way most music, jazz anyway, was approached in my time. You can’t always tell the difference between what’s improvised and what’s written. There was a time those things were quite distinct, most of the time anyway. Halvorson is more of an experimental player than what I think of as a jazz player. Those other people I mentioned play more smoothly, more in a jazz vein. She takes elements of jazz and works with them. But if you heard it for the first time I am not sure you’d think of it as jazz. It’s not music you tap your feet to. I still think jazz has to do with a certain kind of forward motion, being able to feel certain kinds of rhythms and grooves.
Q: It seems to me your music always bears some relation to melody.
A: I think that’s right. The melody is so important to me. The new record is chock full of melody. It’s just like a series of songs. Most of my records are. This one is not that much different. This one might be a bit more accessible than some of my older music. It doesn’t go into the avant-garde area too much except for Shadow of a Doubt, which was a totally improvised piece by the four of us. I’d like to do more of that with this band but I would never want to make it the band’s calling card. We do free improvisational pieces in every gig. We’ll do it in Ottawa. But it’s not the whole concert, or even a big part of it. It may be a small piece that stands apart, like Shadow of a Doubt on the album, or it may be an introduction to another piece, a long free introduction that morphs into one of the songs from the album. We like to change things from show to show too, as we were talking about earlier, staying fresh, exploring interesting new ideas.
Q: Here’s a final question: What’s your view of the state of jazz? I ask because I happen to think we’re in a fertile period. There seems to be so many good young players doing interesting new things, experimenting in new ways, or building on old ideas in interesting fresh ways, incorporating musics from around the world. Yet, the audiences seem stagnant or even shrinking, and apart from stuff at the poppish end — Diana Krall, Michael Buble, Norah Jones, if you can count her — there are no big album sellers.
A: I think you are entirely right. It is a very fertile period. There are so many highly accomplished, creative musicians out playing more interesting music than ever before. There is a lot vitality, an incredible amount of music played at a high level. But there is a lack of venues, a lack of recording opportunities, at least in the way we have traditionally thought of them. The business side is way down, way out of kilter. But despite these things, there are more players than there ever were. There are more schools. Every school has a jazz program. I teach in one, down in White Plains at the State University of New York. There is NYU, Columbia, Berklee and on and on. Every college in the country, it seems, has a jazz program. So kids want to study jazz. In my teaching, I always make them aware that jazz has a lot in it, it has the tradition, it’s got all the newer stuff and the integration with music from other cultures, but I tell them it is going to be very, very hard to find work. And when you do find work, if you are really good and really lock in and you can get someone behind you, maybe then you can get a record out there. But so many people are recording on their own because there seems no other way. The big labels don’t seem interested.
I am lucky to still do it the old fashioned way with a legitimate record label, a respected one. That’s very rare these days. I know I am one of the blessed. I know I will always have a place to go to record my ideas, at least until Manfred and I get too old to do it anymore. But I will keep at it until I can’t. It’s so tough for so many of these talented young musicians. It’s not only expensive to make a record, you have to find a way to promote it, to distribute it, to get people interested in it, and then to find a place to perform it so others can hear it. Jazz is a music that is meant to be played, and heard, in a live setting. Amazingly, some people are making it work. Their talent and their drive is making things happen. But it’s tough. There is a market for everything, it’s just that there are so many performers it is tough for everyone, or even a majority, to get ahead, to make a mark, especially in America. It may still be different in Europe, which is probably why so many Americans go to Europe.
New York still has a fair amount of clubs, but a lot of big cities, places like Boston, they have very few places left. I mean, I am an established musician and I am not playing nearly the number of gigs I once did. I have this short tour coming up, the one bringing me to Ottawa, and then I am done for a couple of months. I have nothing lined up, nothing on the horizon. It’s more and more like being an actor and waiting for your agent to call with news of a part, any kind of part.
Q: At least you have the teaching gig and you’re not waiting on tables.
A: Yes, this is true. I have many reasons to be thankful. And most of the time when I do play — 98 per cent of the time — I play with people I really want to play with. So it is a rewarding experience. It’s rare I don’t do something that doesn’t give me satisfaction. But you know, this might be a vital, creative time with more musicians than ever, most of whom can’t make a decent living doing what they love and are good at — but it beats the alternative, which is fewer musicians and less interest in jazz, at least among young players studying music. And you know, it is not so bad when you’re young and what matters is that you are playing, even if it’s in a small club or a garage for not much money, or no money. You are happy for that, music is life, and you are alive playing music. But as you get older that gets harder to sustain. And you start to wonder, how will I make a living? And for some, that’s the end of the dream. It’s a shame.
And here is my review of the concert that the interview previewed:
Mild-mannered guitar god delivers stellar show; No showboating required when skill is matched by a perfect backing band
Mon Feb 17 2014
Section: Arts & Life
Byline: Peter Hum
Source: Ottawa Citizen
The John Abercrombie Quartet
Library and Archives Canada Auditorium Reviewed Saturday Night
Saturday night’s concert by the quartet of guitarist John Abercrombie began with great delicacy and there was plenty more where that came from. But in the end, it was a full-spectrum, fully immersive experience for the crowd that filled the Library and Archives Canada auditorium, almost an hour and a half of music dotted with splashy, vigorous explosions as well as gentle beauty, wry humour as well as pristine sounds.
The last thing that the 69-year-old American jazz great did was showboat. He seemed like a guitar hero of the mild-mannered variety, favouring a light, spidery sound in the service of a mature and personal art that asked listeners to meet it halfway, fill in blanks and make connections. As deep as the music was, it easily drew in enough listeners and kept them sufficiently interested, surprised and delighted that a standing ovation and prolonged applause closed the evening.
Abercrombie’s group was something of a dream band, a stellar group better than the sum of its impressive parts.
Pianist Marc Copland, who has made music off and on with Abercrombie for 40-odd years, was an optimal accompanist for the guitarist, someone who fits in all the nooks and crannies of the Abercrombie sonic world. The pianist is one of jazz’s too-rare instantly identifiable players, thanks to chords that are thick, evocative and always on the move; melodies that skitter and resonate with fine, fleeting implications.
There’s simply not a better, more individualistic pianist in jazz when it comes to adding shades of mystery to the musical proceedings with an in-the-moment, yet orchestral, aplomb.
Bassist Drew Gress provided the bottom end of the sound and helped ensure that the music was always shifting and mutable. When his peers were soloing, Gress always had their backs, and he was a commanding soloist in his own right.
The band’s grinning extrovert was drummer Joey Baron. It’s not as if he wasn’t as strikingly subtle and nuanced as his peers. But he also added musical exclamation marks and broad exhortations that fit into the music by dint of his big personality and impeccable timing. As over-sized as they sometimes were, Baron’s interjections were always delivered with the grace and wit of a swinging standup comic. If anyone was the life of the party on stage, it was Baron. Indeed, at times Abercrombie, sitting nearby, couldn’t stifle his laughter at what his drummer was doing.
Of course, these players combined in a musical gestalt. In the end it was the singular sound that they made together that counted most.
Much of the set consisted of Abercrombie compositions drawn from his most recent disc, 39 Steps. But in a live setting, the pieces grew in intensity and were sometimes capable of developing organically from a few fragile notes into a roiling, vamping cavalcade.
There was the contemplative yet twisting piece Vertigo and the lilting waltzing piece Another Ralph’s. The piece Greenstreet was spun from a spontaneous piano-and-guitar duet (“Why don’t you just start? I’ll jump in,” said Abercrombie). The ballad As It Stands was like the musical equivalent of haiku, allowing for great and touching meanings to be spun from just a few bars of material.
The group also played three jazz standards, of which Abercombie said: “They’re like old friends. You can get real with them.”
The show opened with I Should Care, an oldie that sounded very fresh, gradual and personal. A solo guitar introduction flowed into All The Things You Are, during which an impromptu and rubato duet for Copland and Baron was one highlight, while a rugged, quasi-funky prolonged ending was another.
As elegant and lyrical as much of the night was, its conclusion was a romp through the Ornette Coleman blues When Will The Blues Leave? Abercrombie’s blues and bop roots were peeking out during his lengthy solo, and Baron gleefully laid into his kit. It was an exuberant finish to the music. The only better one would have been an encore.
Rest in peace, John Abercrombie.