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John Abercrombie

with Don Thompson

and Terry Clarke

At the Montreal Bistro

in Toronto on Tuesday

John Abercrombie set the pattern for his week at the Montreal Bistro right from the start on Tuesday night. First, the splendid New York guitarist played two duets with Toronto pianist Don Thompson. Then, with Thompson switching to bass and a second Toronto musician, Terry Clarke, slipping in behind the drums, Abercrombie completed the evening's first set with four trio items.

There might appear to be some risk attached to this plan -- specifically, that Thompson would steal the show.

Ironically, though, Toronto audiences tend to take his versatility in stride. Piano? Right. Bass now? Fine. (Vibraphone? Okay.)

Abercrombie and Thompson go back 20 years together to their days as summer instructors at the Banff Jazz Workshop in Alberta. For that, they communicate at an extraordinarily high level, high enough to move easily through the standard Be My Love and the guitarist's own Soundtrack with scarcely more than a word and a nod.

Abercrombie put his thoughts forward in softly muted lines of muffled notes; Thompson responded with harder-edged tracery. The guitarist defines himself in part through his use of tone, or rather tones, controlling their shape and colour very carefully for the subtlest of dramatic effects. (The odd thing is, he strikes the strings not with a pick but with his thumb, surely the most cumbersome of the digits available for such a delicate, pressure-sensitive purpose.)

To add Terry Clarke to the mix is to add 40 years more to the trio's collective experience. He and Thompson date back as a team to the early 1960s in Vancouver; more recently they've served two other noted guitarists, New Yorker Jim Hall and Toronto's Ed Bickert, exceptionally well.

In this, Clarke's first appearance at the Bistro with Abercrombie, he stayed right at the guitarist's heels throughout the trio's first tune together, a bustling You and the Night and the Music that would prove to be the set's highlight. The drummer's sense of urgency was less appropriate to the pieces that followed, Abercrombie's A Nice Idea and That's for Sure notable among them.

Ultimately, Abercrombie seemed to prefer a more deliberate pace. That's for Sure even came with a country-ish drawl and eventually found the guitarist ambling around the turf staked out by another country-influenced jazzer, Bill Frisell. ("It's not really a jazz tune," Abercrombie said, by way of introduction.

These days, though, what is?)

And so it went, with Clarke a little overassertive, Abercrombie leaning to an understated lyricism and Thompson, calmly in character, playing the mediator.

That's not an instrument, of course, but a role, one that he handles as skillfully as he handles everything else. John Abercrombie, Don Thompson and Terry Clarke appear again at Toronto's Montreal Bistro tonight and tomorrow night.