At Roulette, Admirers Gather To Honor John Abercrombie


​Saxophonist Joe Lovano (left), bassist Drew Gress, guitarist John Scofield and drummer Adam Nussbaum pay tribute to John Abercrombie at a recent performance in Brooklyn at Roulette.

(Photo: Scott Friedlander)

The line at Roulette went out the door, wrapped around the corner of Third Avenue and ran down Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn.

“Timeless: A Tribute To His Life And Music,” a gathering of friends and colleagues honoring guitar great John Abercrombie, who died Aug. 22, 2017, featured some extraordinary combinations of musicians performing pieces that covered Abercrombie’s recorded legacy, from 1975’s Timeless, his auspicious debut, to his swan song, 2017’s ironically titled Up And Coming.

Performances on March 26 were preceded by a clip from a new documentary by Arno Oehri and Oliver Primus, Open Land — Meeting John Abercrombie, which depicts the guitarist at his Putnam Valley home saying, “I have to play at the highest level I can play. It’s important to me. It’s that personal satisfaction thing—‘That felt good; that didn’t feel good.’ Realize what it is, and try and make it the best that you can.”

Despite no rehearsal time, the various musicians who came to honor Abercrombie performed at the highest level, some fighting back tears on the more poignant gems. Guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan opened the evening with an elegant reading of the intimate duet “Epilogue,” from 2004’s quartet record Class Trip. They were next joined by longtime Abercrombie quartet members, violinist Mark Feldman and drummer Joey Baron, for renditions of “Anniversary Waltz” and the profoundly moving “Sad Song,” both from 2009’s Wait Till You See Her Now. Frisell and Morgan displayed their uncanny telepathy on both numbers, while Baron set an alluring tone with his sensitive, swirling brushwork on the sparse, melancholy “Sad Song.”

Feldman shared a graceful call-and-response with Frisell on “Anniversary Waltz,” while the guitarist captured Abercrombie’s lyricism and sense of swing on that buoyant number. Feldman’s outstanding solo on “Sad Song” reached rhapsodic levels, while Frisell affected a kind of walking-on-eggshells sensitivity that both he and Abercrombie inherited from Jim Hall, their friend and mentor.

Abercrombie’s former duet partner Ralph Towner regretted not being able to attend the event due to an acute ear infection, but he sent a message, which was read by the evening’s master of ceremonies, journalist Nate Chinen, reflecting on Abercrombie’s quick wit and wry observations, along with his penchant for impressions, including Boris Karloff singing the Richard Rodgers Songbook.

Next up was guitarist Nels Cline, who fronted a quartet of pianist Marc Copland, bassist Morgan and drummer Peter Erskine on “Memoir” from 1977’s Characters and the crystalline “Boat Song” from 1981’s M.

Pianist Eliane Elias followed with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Erskine for trio renditions of the jaunty “John’s Waltz” from 1993’s November and a bossa nova take on “Jazz Folk” from the 2006 Chesky release Structures. Elias delivered some forceful, two-fisted keyboard work, while also dipping into some bluesy Red Garland-isms.

John Scofield next joined bassist Johnson and drummer Baron on the swinging Abercrombie original “Even Steven” from the guitarists’ 1984 duet album, Solar. His trading eights with Baron was a highlight of this exhilarating number. Scofield then was joined by bassist Drew Gress, drummer Adam Nussbaum and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano for a spirited run through the boppish “Within A Song,” Abercrombie’s contrafact on the standard “Without A Song,” and a beautiful rendition of the jazz waltz “Easy Reader,” both from the 2012 quartet album Within A Song.

An ensemble fronted by Randy Brecker on flugelhorn and Dave Liebman on soprano sax, featuring Copland, Gress and Nussbaum, then performed the introspective title track from Abercrombie’s 1979 album, Arcade. Becker and Liebman demonstrated the same kind of close call-and-response, and lyricism that Abercrombie and pianist Richie Beirach shared on the original. Copland pushed the harmonic envelope with his dark voicings on this misterioso number. Drummer Billy Hart then replaced Nussbaum in that unit for a romp through the joyful swinger “Flipside” from 2017’s Up And Coming.

A highlight of the evening came when Frisell joined Copland, Gress and drumming great Jack DeJohnette for a rendition of “Timeless,” which had Frisell playing his half-size custom Telecaster to capture Abercrombie’s timbre on that 1975 classic. Gress contributed a resounding bass solo while DeJohnette alternated between sensitive brushwork and cutting up the beat in typically creative ways on this familiar melody.

This group concluded the concert with a swinging rendition of “Ralph’s Piano Waltz” from Timeless, which had DeJohnette firing up the bandstand with signature fills and exhilarating, syncopated pulse. The drummer also had the final word of the evening when he shouted to the rafters, as the entire cast took their bows: “We love you, John!”

All proceeds from the concert, as well as from sales of Abercrombie’s ECM albums that were available in the lobby of Roulette, will go to the John Abercrombie Jazz Scholarship Fund Charitable Trust, a nonprofit organization providing tuition assistance for jazz students in need. DB

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