Live Review: “John Abercrombie: Timeless”

Brooklyn tribute to guitar great features Scofield, Frisell, DeJohnette and many more

JATT-1975-©ScottFriedlander

Jack DeJohnette (left) and Bill Frisell (photo by Scott Friedlander)

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On Monday night, at the Brooklyn venue Roulette, a fantastic two-hour-plus tribute show was bookended by the same interview footage from the documentary Open Land – Meeting John Abercrombie (which sees DVD release this summer). In it, the guitarist is talking about what constitutes a proper evaluation in art. A musician needs only to look inward, he argues: “My responsibility is to myself.”

That’s effective talk for a reflective film, but it isn’t necessarily the truth that this concert bore out. Abercrombie, who died in August at age 72, was one of his generation’s most natural collaborators, an insider’s guitar hero who architected an arty, emotive version of fusion and wrote tunes balancing his love of melody with sly harmonic and rhythmic complexities. His bands, particularly in his epochal work for ECM in the 1970s, were supergroups on paper but functioned as profoundly empathic working outfits. Even his improvising, especially after he began using his thumb instead of a pick, felt even-handed, egalitarian, as if each note were equally integral to the grand narrative shape of his solos. His responsibility was one of generosity. (And it continues. Proceeds from the concert went to the newly formed John Abercrombie Jazz Scholarship Fund.)

In Brooklyn, a striking lineup of Abercrombie’s peers from jazz’s baby-boom generation gathered to return some of his many favors. With WBGO’s Nate Chinen, a former JT columnist, providing sharp intros that functioned as live liner notes, Abercrombie’s music was interpreted and a few of his ensembles were recreated. Sometimes that meant placing in the leader’s stead other brilliant guitarists who learned to play bebop during the rock era.

After establishing a tone of reverent calm with bassist Thomas Morgan on “Epilogue,” guitarist Bill Frisell filled Abercrombie’s shoes in the quartet from his 2009 ECM release, Wait Till You See Her, alongside Morgan, violinist Mark Feldman and drummer Joey Baron. On the ballad “Sad Song” and chamberlike postbop of “Anniversary Waltz,” Frisell captured Abercrombie’s patient temperament but applied his own trademarks, replacing single-note phrasing with Monk-like chord-melody improvisations. Feldman’s gorgeously textured, melancholy vibrato served as a reminder that this night was indeed a wake of sorts.

Nels Cline (photo by Scott Friedlander)
Nels Cline (photo by Scott Friedlander)

Nels Cline lifted up Abercrombie’s solo-guitar masterwork from 1978, Characters, with a take of “Memoir,” before the guitarist and pianist Marc Copland gave the infectious melody of “Boat Song” its requisite sparkle, supported by Morgan and drummer Peter Erskine. Throughout, Cline’s winsomely rugged, rock-inflected technique was exciting in the context of Abercrombie’s writing—Advanced Jazz Composition of the school ruled by Pat Metheny, Carla Bley, Steve Swallow and the like. Pianist Eliane Elias filled out Abercrombie’s mid-to-late-’80s trio featuring Erskine and bassist Marc Johnson, and on “John’s Waltz” and especially “Jazz Folk,” she played with an escalating gospel-blues fervor that brought down the house.

John Scofield, with bassist Drew Gress at back (photo by Scott Friedlander)

John Scofield, in a trio with Baron and Johnson, swung like mad on his fellow guitarist’s tune “Even Steven,” a fetching set of changes off Solar, Abercrombie and Scofield’s overlooked gem from 1982. The bop zest continued into “Within a Song”: Scofield and saxophonist Joe Lovano, his partner in one of current jazz’s most thrilling frontlines, played cat-and-mouse on the theme and burned during their solos, atop bassist Drew Gress and the furious spang-a-lang of drummer Adam Nussbaum. (In terms of volume and intensity, the evening worked at two levels: with Nussbaum and without.)

Joe Lovano (photo by Scott Friedlander)
Joe Lovano (photo by Scott Friedlander)

On “Arcade” and “Flipside,” Randy Brecker and Dave Liebman were similarly, delightfully interactive as a frontline tandem—the former blowing with virtuosic elegance on flugelhorn, and the latter, nearly right out of the gate, summoning up Trane on soprano sax at full tilt. Copland, who was also the evening’s musical director, soloed here and elsewhere in comprehensive orchestral statements. On “Flipside,” with its shades of vintage Wayne Shorter, an unbilled appearance by drummer Billy Hart got a terrific but short-lived band back together: Contact, whose 2010 release Five on One is another of Abercrombie’s unsung pearls of modern postbop.

Dave Liebman (photo by Scott Friedlander)
Dave Liebman (photo by Scott Friedlander)

The program closed with a proper finale, with music from 1975’s Timeless, a diverse album highlighted by cosmic organ-trio fusion and featuring keyboardist Jan Hammer and drummer Jack DeJohnette. That is Abercrombie’s most popular LP, though not necessarily his best of the era; just as many record collectors might argue in favor of Gateway. More important, it’s a cultural touchstone of sorts: the kind of jazz LP that smart, curious rock and folk fans absorbed alongside The Köln Concert and In a Silent Way, and a jewel of his enduring and fruitful devotion to the ECM label. (It’s worth noting that the label’s founder, Manfred Eicher, was in the house.) At Roulette, DeJohnette, Copland, Gress and Frisell, on a funny-looking short-scale octave guitar, meditated on the title track, an ambient drift of spare but sparkling melody. Then came “Ralph’s Piano Waltz,” which offered the sold-out room the welcome opportunity to witness DeJohnette swing at midtempo.

Even among the frequent all-star tributes to jazz heroes that occur in New York, this was a special evening. It made you marvel at the sheer volume and magnitude of Abercrombie’s circle, and remember those key figures who couldn’t be there, like Ralph Towner, who cancelled his appearance due to illness, or Dave Holland and Andy LaVerne. Perhaps most impressive, it was a sit-down theater-style show that felt like the best kind of musicians’ hang, in which the players were either onstage or engaged with the performances as fans. (Case in point: DeJohnette sat next to me in a press seat until about a minute before he went to work.) It was all for John, but, in his spirit, it was also all for each other.

Read a tribute to John Abercrombie by Peter Erskine

Read an archival profile of John Abercrombie by David R. Adler