John Abercrombie at Riverspace Café

by Ralph Miriello,
August 3, 2008 

Tucked away in the eclectic Hudson River town of Nyack, New York, the people of Riverspace ended this year’s jazz series with a rare appearance by John Abercrombie and his trio at their cozy cafe. The Riverspace organization is a local non-profit whose mission is to create a dynamic cultural center that inspires community through nurturing the arts. True to this mission they presented the master guitarist in the early show, and the journeyman jazz artist did not disappoint. Joined by his able trio mates—a particularly sensitive Peter Brendler on acoustic bass and Joe Lovano alumnus Bob Meyer on drums—Abercrombie weaved his magic, playing a combination of well-worn standards and some original tunes to an eager and receptive audience of mostly middle-aged patrons sprinkled with some younger fans.

Having first seen him over thirty years ago in the fusion days of the experimental super group known as “Dreams”—alongside fellow trailblazers Billy Cobham, Michael and Randy Brecker—at the old “Bottom of the Village Gate” in New York City, I found it almost surreal to see him in this much more subdued setting with a mostly older crowd. 

For those of us who have grown up with John’s work over the year, from his aptly titled ECM debut album Timeless with keyboard wizard Jan Hammer and quintessential drummer Jack DeJohnette, through his exciting and exploratory work on Gateway, again with DeJohnette along with fellow explorer bassist Dave Holland, as well as many other noteworthy collaborations, we have come to expect John’s accomplished technique always tempered by his wonderfully unique knack for improvisation and great lyricism.

The program started with Riverspace jazz curator Richard Sussman introducing John as one of his favorite improvisers. The group warmed up with an old standard, Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is The Ocean.” Abercrombie floated around the melody. Performing on a custom semi-hollow-bodied guitar with an array of various electronic controls at his disposal, all activated by a subtle touch with his left foot, Abercrombie played à la Wes Montgomery with the fat of his thumb. The guitar had that rich, full round sound that this type of attack produces. John seems very comfortable with the “standards”, for as he has stated in a previous interview, his familiarity with a song frees him to explore its boundaries while always grounding him in its melody.

Before the start of the next song, the guitarist prefaced it by saying that he used to play it a lot and had gotten bored with it and stopped until he recently revisited it and saw it in a new light. The tune was “Ralph’s Piano Waltz” from his seminal album Timeless. As John tells it, he wrote this composition on friend and fellow guitarist Ralph Towner’s piano at his Greenwich Village apartment, and hence the title. The song allowed for some nice work by John and bassist Brendler, whose sensitive solo was well received by the audience. Veteran Meyer handled the tune smoothly on snare and cymbals and it was nice to hear John play this familiar self-penned tune in an intimate setting.

The third composition was as surprise; a never-before-performed song that John said was inspired by another song “Zhivago” written by the contemporary guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. Abercrombie is a much sought after teacher, as well he should be, and his students have kept him hip to the new sounds of fellow guitarists, Rosenwinkel among them. After assuring us that he hadn’t ripped Kurt off, but was simply inspired by the young guitarist’s work, he proceeded with the tune he has temporarily dubbed “Kurt.” John’s mastery of the complex and quickly changing time signatures that were featured in this composition was a joy to behold, despite his offering apologies for not getting it totally right, while his able rhythm section deftly followed his lead.

John continued with a sensitive rendering of the classic “Darn That Dream” and then changed direction with an Ornette Coleman tune, a bopping rendition of “When Will the Blues Leave.” He finished the first set with another Coleman composition, the altoist's “Round Trip.”

Abercrombie, sporting his nicely trimmed Wilfred Brimley style brush-mustache, played like a man who has reached a level of comfort within himself and his playing. He doesn’t rip like he used to, but prefers to be more cognizant of the space between the notes and the harmonic discretion of his explorations. His playing has a light, airy feel to it and his improvisational directions are delightfully unexpected. Abercrombie stands as one of the most important players of his generation, boasting his own unique sound and his own deliberate approach to the music. At the tender age of sixty-four, he still demands our most careful listening.