Jazz Notes: Improviser Par Excellence, Guitarist John Abercrombie Passes Away August 22
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, August 25, 2017
After a long fullness, guitarist John Abercrombie passed away peacefully in the presence of his family on August 22 at Hudson Valley Hospital outside of Peekskill, NY, not far from where he lived. I spoke with John in 2012 for DownBeat on the occasion of his new quartet album. I have dredged up that feature which will appear below in a slightly different form than the original piece.
Growing up is a notion that John Abercrombie doesn’t appear to subscribe to. He’s still evolving, still making his way. He vividly recalls those days when he felt behind the times, in skills and style. While not outwardly a rule-breaker, the guitarist has quietly made it his goal to subvert the music from the inside—not with a brash blast… but from within.
There were no straight lines, no sudden leaps, no predictable trajectory in Abercrombie’s coming of age as a jazz guitarist. He didn’t arrive as a child prodigy nor did he exude an overpowering confidence. He came up listening to Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore on Elvis Presley sides in the ’50s; encountered his first jazz revelation taking in Barney Kessel on the 1957 LP The Poll Winners with Shelly Manne and Ray Brown; experienced his second guitar epiphany hearing Jim Hall’s counterpoints to Sonny Rollins on the saxophonist’s The Bridge; and later bowed to Jimi Hendrix, especially 1968’s Axis: Bold As Love.
In his early days, Abercrombie was more likely to unplug and retreat to his room when he heard further-evolved musicians—saxophonists, pianists, other guitarists—than to charge full-speed into jam sessions unprepared and unable to keep up. During Abercrombie’s first year at Berklee School of Music in 1962 (eight years before its name was changed to Berklee College of Music), he heard saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, a fellow classmate, practicing Charlie Parker tunes, which crushed him. “I felt terrible,” the 67-year-old Abercrombie says. “I thought, ‘I’ll never be able to play this music. It’s too hard.’ But I stuck it out. I didn’t know what else to do. If that didn’t work, well, I thought I could go home and pump gas. I could give it up and become one of everyone else.”
Not a chance. Determined, Abercrombie dug in, studied heavily, listened intently, practiced vehemently and overcame the urge to retreat. Fifty years after enrolling at Berklee, Abercrombie is recognized as one of jazz’s most identifiable and adventurous six-stringers. He has enjoyed a profoundly successful career as a leader almost exclusively on ECM Records, including his new album, Within a Song—an homage largely to the music of the early ’60s that made an impact on his young ears—featuring the support team of Joe Lovano on saxophone, Drew Gress on bass and Joey Baron on drums. He pays tribute to Rollins and Hall, Art Farmer, Bill Evans, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman—artists who were resolute on re-envisioning the tradition. In the album’s liner notes, Abercrombie writes, “It was this music that spoke to me. When I heard it, it was like finding a new home. The music on this recording is dedicated to all those musicians [who] gave me a place to live.”
After years living in Boston post-Berklee and then relocating in 1970 to a loft space in New York, the amiable and self-effacing Abercrombie today dwells in the country, about an hour from New York by car or train. He’s got a deck for barbecuing, a pool that’s perfect for a summer day, a yard with tall trees and a disheveled downstairs jam session room scattered with instruments, most of them guitars. Sitting at his dining room table overlooking his back yard, Abercrombie seems contently settled yet also ready to pounce onto a new quartet project that’s already in the wings (this time with the same rhythm team and pianist Marc Copeland, a longtime collaborator).
Convinced he wanted to pursue a musical life while still in high school, Abercrombie started poking around at post-graduation possibilities. Two schools he investigated were Manhattan School of Music and The Juilliard School. “None acknowledged jazz, and none accepted guitar as a major instrument,” he says. “Plus, they were looking for students who had super good grades, which I didn’t, so they were out from the beginning.” He heard about Berklee from a friend and sent away for a catalog; when it arrived, there on the cover were various musicians hanging around the front steps of the school. One was Hungarian guitarist Gábor Szabó, who had his instrument with him. Abercrombie opened the booklet and discovered there were numerous classes for guitarists. “That’s for me, I’m in,” he says. “The requirements were two years of musical experience. Everybody lied. I had classes with guys who couldn’t play at all, and real professional players.” He adds, with a laugh, “Keith Jarrett was there my first year. He came and realized there was nothing they could offer him, so he went off to fame and fortune.”
After a discouraging first year, Abercrombie gained confidence, especially through the encouragement of such teachers as Herb Pomeroy, John LaPorta and Jack Petersen (the first full-time guitar teacher and inaugural chair of the guitar department). Abercrombie soon scored a gig with a small band. “It felt good to be a working musician, carrying my guitar down the street,” he says. “I’d go into the club Paul’s Mall and say, ‘I’m the guitar player.’ It was being on a team, where you don’t quite know what it is but that you’re part of it, you’re in this thing called music.”
As for jazz, there weren’t many opportunities to play, so at first Abercrombie did that more in private. He was hired to play in the Danny White Orchestra r&b/blues band, whose gigs included playing at Air Force and Army bases. There were the r&b standards as well as arrangements of Horace Silver’s and Ray Charles’ music. That led to Abercrombie being enlisted by Hammond B3 player John “Hammond” Smith. “John was looking for a young guitar player whom he could abuse and pay the least amount of money possible,” he says with a laugh. It was a funky, jazz-tinged job in the organ tradition that kept the young guitarist busy for seven nights a week plus a Sunday matinee. Abercrombie later made his first recording with Smith in 1968, The Soulful Blues, in a band that included saxophonist Houston Person and drummer Grady Tate.
During this time, two seminal events were taking place in the outside world. First was the rise in popularity of rock music, precipitated by the Beatles and enlarged upon by bands that Abercrombie listened to, including Cream and Jimi Hendrix. But the most immediate backdrop was the Vietnam War. Abercrombie attended Berklee from 1962–’66, which sheltered him from the draft, then graduated in 1967. If he had pushed to teach, he would have avoided conscription, but he opted not to go that route. “I didn’t want to teach,” he says. “I was too young. I wanted to play.”
Two days after graduation he received his notice to report to the induction center in New Haven, Conn., to take his physical. “I flunked,” says Abercrombie with a big smile. “It’s a true story. I was born with a short right leg that required me to wear a lift in my shoe. Of course, it was embarrassing as a kid. It looked weird. Kids at school would call me Frankenstein. So I stopped wearing it. But when I got my draft notice, my mother suggested getting new shoes with a lift. And my doctor wrote a letter that said something like, ‘Please excuse John from killing and maiming today. He’s not feeling well.’ So I took the physical and I was rejected.”
Abercrombie soon jumped into the jazz-rock fire by joining the pioneering fusion band Dreams, which included Randy and Michael Brecker, Billy Cobham (then Bill Cobham Jr.) and others. “It was an assorted group of maniacs,” Abercrombie says. “That was the beginning of me not playing straightahead jazz for many years.” In 1970, Columbia Records placed an ad in Billboard introducing the group: “If Dreams’ music gets ordinary people as excited as it has gotten fellow musicians and jazz/rock critics, it should become a very important group in months to come.” Wishful thinking.
While the band largely fizzled in the fusion zone, it did help launch Cobham’s career. The drummer played with Miles Davis, joined up with the Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin, and into the early-to-mid-’70s helmed his own fusion band, to which Abercrombie was enlisted. It was exciting, and Abercrombie loved his bandmates, but the gig ultimately took him away from his jazz roots. “I was playing on one chord with a wah-wah pedal and other effects,” he recalls. “I could play this music and still play a standard like ‘Stella by Starlight,’ which a lot of the guys couldn’t go near. I knew Billy could play with a beautiful swing, but he was playing rock rhythms in odd meters and always funky. The harmonies didn’t go very far. The solos were played on a vamp. Something was missing.”
When Cobham’s band went on tour as the opening act for the Doobie Brothers, Abercrombie’s dissatisfaction grew. It climaxed when they played the Spectrum in Philadelphia. “They play football there,” he says in mock exasperation. “And I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here? Wait a minute—this isn’t what I set out to do.’ I needed an out.”
The big turning point, Abercrombie says, came when he got a call out of the blue from drummer Jack DeJohnette: “The phone rang and it’s, ‘Hey man, this is Jack DeJohnette. I got your number from a friend, and I’ve been hearing good things about you. I’m starting a band. Would you like to come to my house with Miroslav Vitous and jam?’” Abercrombie agreed, they set up in DeJohnette’s backyard (at this time he was living in Flemington, N.J.) and played free improvisations. “All of sudden,” Abercrombie says, “we hear someone playing a soprano saxophone off in the distance. It was Steve Marcus, who lived across this field. As he got closer and closer, we were playing along with him. It was a mind-blowing hippie experience. That’s how I met Jack, and that was how I got out of hard-core fusion into something that was way more expansive.”
Around this same time, Abercrombie linked up with ECM label founder Manfred Eicher, who knew the guitarist from his appearance on Enrico Rava’s 1973 album Katchapari Rava (on the Italian label BASF) and invited him to make a recording as a leader. Initially Abercrombie told Eicher that he was just a sideman and hadn’t written much of his own music. But Eicher persisted. They corresponded by mail, and finally the guitarist said that he was ready. His vision for a trio included DeJohnette and organist/pianist Jan Hammer. “I hired two ridiculous guys who were so good, so wide open, so exploratory, so full of amazing chops, it was all I could do to keep up with them to make the record,” he says. The result was Abercrombie’s 1974 album Timeless, which teems with a rare blend of spirited fusion, gripping rhythms and acoustic jazz, including two ballads that Abercrombie wrote specifically for the session.
In 1975, Abercrombie, DeJohnette and Dave Holland formed the monster post-fusion band Gateway and recorded its eponymous debut for ECM. “Phew, that was such a great band,” Abercrombie says. “The music was so fresh. I was a crazy kid then. We were all like kids let loose in a toy shop. It was like, ‘Take any toy—you won’t get in trouble.’ I had permission to take all kinds of risks. It was the Wild West. One audience member told us that he heard that record and he shaved his head. There were no guitar trios then playing in that free style. We were not exactly your mother’s jazz trio.” The group recorded two albums, then reconvened nearly 20 years later for two more.
Holland recalls those heady early days. “That band meant a lot in the ’70s,” he says. “We got to explore music that no one else was doing. We had great tours.” As for Abercrombie’s guitar voice, Holland adds, “John has always looked to seek new music. He has great range. And he has such a personal voice on the guitar, which is not easy. Over the years he’s come up with his own sound, approach, phrasing. He can straddle a lot of styles, going into the contemporary field with open-form music and contemporary beats.”
Beginning with Timeless and Gateway, with rare exceptions, Abercrombie has been in ECM’s stable since, playing with a dizzying array of musicians, including a quartet with pianist Richie Beirach, more sessions with Rava, albums with Ralph Towner as well as Jan Garbarek, a trio with Peter Erskine and Marc Johnson, and for the last four albums before Within a Song, a quartet with violinist Mark Feldman.
For Within a Song, Abercrombie opted to form a new quartet, this time with a saxophonist instead of violin. “I felt like that last quartet had run its course,” he says. “I went back and forth with Manfred about this and finally he said, ‘Why don’t you call Lovano?’ I’d played with Joe over the years, but I figured he was just so busy with recordings and touring. Still, I called him up, and he said, ‘Absolutely.’ I knew he would be the best person because he knows the music.”
On the new disc, Abercrombie creates a compassionate, very personal reflection on the integral music of his awakening years as a jazz guitarist. Rather than paying tribute to one artist, he zeroes in on songs from albums that influenced him, including Davis’ Kind Of Blue, Rollins’ The Bridge, Ornette Coleman’s This Is Our Music, Bill Evans’ Interplay and John Coltrane’s Crescent—all music that Abercrombie says makes for “a celebration of an era when the musicians were stretching the forms.”
“My favorite record of all time is The Bridge,” Abercrombie says. “I first heard it in 1962 at a record store in Port Chester, New York. I saw the picture of Sonny on the cover. He had a strange haircut, jacket and his tenor saxophone. I asked the guy in the shop to play it for me, and the first track was ‘Without a Song,’ with Sonny playing the melody and Jim playing a little counterpoint. Remember the little girl from The Exorcist when her head spins around 360 degrees? That’s what happened to me. And I kept thinking, ‘What are they doing?’ The sound grabbed me, and it was at that point that I knew what I wanted to do more than anything. Those moments, they just happen. You can’t look for them. They look for you, and wham!”
Abercrombie knew he needed to pay tribute to that tune, and he complemented it with his own composition “Within a Song,” which opens the track with an upbeat, dance-like guitar/tenor sax connection. That transforms into “Without a Song,” before returning to the original head. “My song is definitely a tip of the hat to the Sonny version,” he says.
Abercrombie also includes The Bridge track “Where Are You,” as a dreamy, slow-moving rendition. “It was so warm,” he says. “It was just melting, dripping out of the speakers.”
He gives further salutation to Hall by including a take on Sergio Mihanovich’s lyrical song “Sometime Ago,” which was staple of the quartet Hall and Art Farmer co-led (featuring bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Pete La Roca). “Jim was a big influence on me, in the way he played and worked inside of a band,” Abercrombie says. “The Hall-Farmer group was my favorite, especially live. They always played in Boston.”
Also featured on Within a Song is a nod to Kind of Blue with a reflective-to-ecstatic rendering of “Flamenco Sketches.” Abercrombie didn’t discover the 1959 album until he was at Berklee: “People were talking about modes while I was still in Barney Kessel-Tal Farlow land and trying to figure out how to play a root-position chord.” Abercrombie approached the song by taking the form and improvising with it, a lesson he learned when playing with Gil Evans at the Village Vanguard years before. “We were playing ‘Summertime’ and I didn’t state the melody, but improvised around it. After the set, I apologized to Gil for doing that, and he said, ‘Don’t apologize. Who cares? Gershwin’s dead, so you can make your own melody.’”
On the song, Abercrombie and Lovano solo above and below each other. “We’re not comping,” he says. “We’re playing together without stepping on each other’s toes. It’s more a commentary. That’s the way the entire session worked, which made it such an easy record to do.”
Other tracks recorded in homage to classic ’60s jazz LPs include “Wise One” (from Crescent), the blues-swinging “Interplay” (from Evans’ album of the same name) and “Blues Connotation” (from This Is Our Music). Abercrombie contributes two originals that he says have nothing to do with the era: “Easy Reader,” a sober waltz with yearning tenor, and the playful “Nick of Time,” with intertwining guitar and tenor sax lines.
While Within a Song is powered on the front line by Abercrombie and Lovano, the album also trains a spotlight on the rhythm team’s prowess. “Joey and Drew can change on a dime,” Abercrombie says. “They can play the most straightahead or go into the outer limits. They are two guys who are adaptable and ready to change.”
The guitarist has known Baron for a long time. Originally the default drummer of an Abercrombie quartet when the original drummer jumped ship to tour on the eve of the recording session, Baron became “a blessing in disguise,” says Abercrombie, for “his unusual playing that’s so colorful and out of the ordinary. He gets so involved in my music and is full of suggestions and ideas.”
Baron returns the compliments. “John is one of those guys who models an aesthetic of making music that’s somewhat vanished from the scene,” he says. “He’s particularly brilliant in the way he carries a foundation of the tradition from a period, like on the new album where we pay tribute to a time without playing like the people then. When he plays, you can hear the connection to the roots of jazz. Even though he’s not given due credit, he’s opened the door for a lot of people. John doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. He doesn’t lecture. He makes music in the moment, which is a rare trait.”
As for Gress, Abercrombie appreciates how he plays in a dependable way that’s also very modern. “Drew is linked to the tradition,” he says. Gress, in turn, values the freedom that Abercrombie brings to a session. “John doesn’t say much about what happens,” he explains. “It’s about the conversations we have, not about agendas or judgment. It’s, let’s talk with our instruments. It’s nice to know that still exists.”
Gress feels that Abercrombie’s guitar tone transcends his playing. “He’s immediately recognizable,” Gress says. “He keeps the group sensibility in mind even when he solos. He can really shred on his instrument. He takes chances to break new territory.” Gress adds: “John’s an important musician in the sense that he doesn’t want jazz to become calcified. He’s game for whatever. It’s hard to keep up with the energy he has. I hope I can be like him when I grow up.”
Cover: Photo John Abercrombie; courtesy of Festival International de Jazz de Montréal