Barry Cleveland: The John Abercrombie Trio at Herbst Theater, San Francisco, CA February 17, 2012

| February 22, 2012

The John Abercrombie Trio gave a stunning performance last Friday at San Francisco’s stately Herbst Theater, as part of SF Jazz’s 2012 season. Joined by Hammond organ virtuoso Gary Versace, and legendary drummer and longtime Abercrombie collaborator Adam Nussbaum, the inimitable guitarist delivered a set that included new pieces from an upcoming ECM album, along with material from his previous releases.
The Trio opened with a new tune called “Within a Song,” which was inspired by the classic Sonny Rollins recording of “Without a Song,” featuring a long-hallowed solo by Jim Hall. Next came a subtly swinging and slightly melancholy arrangement of “Spring Song,” a tune from the guitarist’s 1999 album Open Land, which he says he wrote for his cat. After those two songs, I quit taking notes and just settled back to focus on the music.

Playing a Fender Tele through a handful of pedals and a stereo pair of Roland JC-120s, Abercrombie’s tone was soft, round, and warm most of the time, though occasionally he kicked in a pedal for some fuzzy sustained lines. Abercrombie played mostly with his thumb while sitting essentially motionless, his right arm anchored on the upper bout, the only movements coming from his forearms and hands—as if every bit of his energy was concentrated on playing his instrument. And that concentration came through in the music. Abercrombie’s timing and dynamics were superb, and his note choices reflected the depth of his harmonic concept, as well as an improvisational agility resulting from decades of interaction with myriad brilliant players.
Nussbaum’s drumming was extraordinarily fluid and nuanced, as if his physical execution was an instantaneous expression of the creative impulse, rather than a product of “technique.” Versace embodied the spirit of classic B-3 masters such as Jimmy Smith and Larry Young, but with a touch of Keith Emerson's dramatic flair—and his left foot danced across the bass pedals faster than many organists can play with their left hands.

For me, the most salient aspect of the Trio’s set was the way in which they handled time. Rhythms and polyrhythms were constantly morphing and evolving, sometimes dramatically, other times so subtly that you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t paying attention—and the catalyst was often just the slightest change of accent.
I'd never seen Abercrombie perform with an organ trio before, and I really dug it.

On the same bill was Enrico Rava Tribe, a quintet lead by renowned Italian trumpet player Enrico Rava, another veteran ECM recording artist. They, too, were magnificent.
Barry Cleveland

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