"A neo-fusion standard band" was the way John Abercrombie described his trio Thursday night during his opening set at Catalina Bar & Grill. But he was more on target than he may have suspected, because the musical schizophrenia implicit in his throwaway line turned out to be a reasonably accurate description of the group's playing.
Abercrombie divided his program fairly evenly between high-intensity, fusion-style jazz and traditional improvising on standard tunes. In the case of the fusion pieces, drummer Peter Erskine dominated, laying down a powerful, if somewhat repetitious carpet of rhythm for the digital-effects layering and super-swift runs of Abercrombie's electronic guitar.
Bassist Mark Johnson's "Furs on Ice," contrasting long held tones with rapid-fire bursts of sound, was the most effective fusion number. It succeeded despite the distraction of a microphone whose errant hum added a new, and not always appealing, density to some of the harmonies.
On the standards--especially the stunning versions of "My Foolish Heart" and "In Love in Vain"--the interplay between Abercrombie (playing a more acoustic-sounding instrument) and Johnson's bass was featured. Given the reputation that all three players have as crossover stylists, it was surprising that it took straight ahead, mainstream improvising to trigger their best efforts.
The only intrusive element was Erskine's somewhat choppy ride cymbal work, and even that small irritant was smoothed over by the time the trio reached the inner depths of their final standard, "All the Things You Are."
Part of the Abercrombie trio's musical duality no doubt traced to the unsettling aspects of an opening night. But it would be good to hear a stronger integration of the two sides of what is a potentially fascinating musical personality.
The Abercrombie trio continues at Catalina's through Sunday night.