John Abercrombie Trio: Tactics (ECM 1623)

John Abercrombie Trio

John Abercrombie guitar
Dan Wall Hammond B3
Adam Nussbaum drums
Recorded live at Visiones, New York, July 13-15, 1996
Engineers: David Baker and Bob Ward
An ECM Production

Third time’s a charm for the John Abercrombie Trio, which plants its eponymous guitarist along with Hammondist Dan Wall and drummer Adam Nussbaum in live soil at last. The change of setting does wonders for an already deep and exploratory group, the difference immediate in the shadowy fade-in of “Sweet Sixteen,” which introduces the instruments in a stepwise procession of agents. As Wall rolls his gentle grit across the plains of his solo, we are reminded of the organ’s rich history in jazz, and of the lineage (Larry Young, Jan Hammer, etc.) he draws from in, and transcends by virtue of, his playing. On this date, it’s his programmatic touches that cut deepest. His heat-distorted circles of talk in “Last Waltz,” for example, turn an already slow and arid tune to a state of conduction for Abercrombie and Nussbaum’s exchanges. So begins the album with two of three Abercrombie originals, the last being “Dear Rain,” which also stands as an exposition of the organ’s tender side, plush yet understated. Wall hits on two tunes of his own. “Bo Diddy” is a hip excursion into hard bop details. Nussbaum rocks the boat but keeps it afloat, supporting some of Abercrombie’s fieriest playing in a long while. A tight ground line from Wall indicates a bassist’s approach. This energizing run leaves us primed for something smooth and smoky. This we get in “You And The Night and The Music.” In this timeless standard, Abercrombie locks himself into what I like to call a “smoove groove.” Next is Nussbaum’s “Chumbida.” It is a slow-moving train that dreams of its celeritous youth, only to awaken to it in reality. It accomplishes this through no small feat of development before blending into Wall’s #2, “Mr. Magoo,” which winds the album’s tightest knots from all three, finally petering out into “Long Ago (And Far Away),” a laid-back groove that finds Wall and Abercrombie finishing buoyantly and warmly.

What’s special about this trio is that, even at its most enthralling moments, there is always tenderness to spare. Tactics may seem a curious title, especially when we think of it in the militaristic sense, but in the linguistic sense—i.e., patterns which combine to form larger constructions—it holds true. Abercrombie, Wall, and Nussbaum have done precisely that: taken patterns of the art to which they dedicate their lives and spun them into narratives with lives of their own.

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