Live Reviews: John Abercrombie
Since moving from Berklee College to New York City in 1969, guitarist John Abercrombie has brought his superb technique and lively musical curiosity to a variety of contexts, from his work with the Brecker Brothers to a pair of Hendrix tribute albums with Dr Lonnie Smith to his thirty-year-plus creative relationship with Manfred Eicher’s ECM label. By his own account, Abercrombie is both ‘a traditionalist and a free player’, who on the one hand loves the work of the classic Bill Evans trios, and on the other plays free jazz with such harmonic awareness that it sounds, as he puts it himself, ‘like chamber music.’
This paradoxical approach is shared by Abercrombie’s current drumming partner, Joey Baron, who has the chops and the vision to create the rhythmic platform such a complex mode requires. ‘He is so completely there in the moment,’ Abercrombie says of Baron, ‘that you can do anything. He can make something from nothing more than any drummer that I’ve ever played with.’ Such experience and adventurousness break down conventional barriers, so that even standards have the exhilaration of free jazz. ‘Because I know standards so well,’ Abercrombie says, ‘I’m very free with them. I’m just as free with them as when I’m playing no chords at all.’
All these qualities were on display when the Irish duo of Michael Buckley on tenor sax and Ronan Guilfoyle on bass joined Abercrombie and Baron in Whelan’s last September. From the opening number, the Dietz and Schwartz standard ‘You and the Night and the Music’, to the groove-filled encore, the Sonny Rollins blues ‘Sonnymoon for Two’, the band delivered a hugely satisfying range of tunes, marked by marvelous group virtuosity and a relish for strong rhythms, abstract harmonies and forceful free playing.
Throughout the concert, the tension between freedom and collective focus was negotiated skilfully by the entire quartet. Every tune sparkled, but particularly bright was ‘George’s Hat’, a movement from Renaissance Man, Guilfoyle’s suite in memory of his father, which he and Abercrombie had recorded the week before this show. Opening with a sublime dialogue between bass and drums, the piece moved into a funky quartet excursion that absolutely cooked, with guitar and sax trading breaks before Baron contributed a masterful, hands-only sound sculpture that flowed like melody and cleverly played with audience expectation.
As well as featuring several Abercrombie originals, the rest of the set selected liberally from the canon – Ornette Coleman’s ‘Round Trip’, a sizzling version of Monk’s ‘Nutty’, the Coltrane masterpiece ‘Lonnie’s Lament’. But no matter the source, every piece was enlivened by the trademark Abercrombie tendency to float in and out of the prevailing rhythm, by Buckley’s solid and accomplished soloing, and by the obvious freedom and joy shared by Guilfoyle and Baron as they laid down such infectious grooves. A memorable night of terrific music.
Published on 1 November 2008
Kevin Stevens is is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on history, literature, and jazz.