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Interviews

John Abercrombie: Extending the Tradition

By Published: May 11, 2004
"It was an opportunity to write and play more traditional types of song form," continues Abercrombie. "That band never really delved much into playing what we would call free jazz, we pretty much played songs. And we played standards at gigs—we didn't record them, but we included them in our repertoire for concerts. I think that was a real opportunity to just go completely into playing on form and songs, because I had come out of playing with Billy Cobham and Jack DeJohnette. I really longed to play harmony; being a guitarist harmony is a real natural choice, so I think that band was really important, from that aspect."

One of Abercrombie's lasting memories about the first quartet was one of their recording sessions for ECM. "I remember doing one session, and we were listening to a playback and Manfred was saying, "How do you like that?" I was saying, "That seems fine, I kind of like it." Then George said," I can live with that." And then there was a silence and George came back with, "You know, I think I have to buy myself a bigger house soon," and I said, "Why would you need a bigger place to live?" and he said, "Because of all the shit I have to live with, I have no room for myself anymore."

"I just thought that it was a funny moment," continues Abercrombie, "but it was also really kind of to the point. You're always saying, "Well, I can live with it." And you wind up living with a lot of stuff that you really don't like that much, but you just live with it anyway. With every recording you make, it's out there and it's documented, so you just kind of have to live with it; you have to live with how you play and how you are, and I think that was kind of an insightful thing to say. But of course when he said it everyone just cracked up because it was so funny, and George is a very funny guy."

Marc Johnson and Peter Erskine

Abercrombie's first group lasted only four years; his second group, a trio with bassist Marc Johnson and Peter Erskine, lasted longer—over seven years. "The second band was an opportunity to try a lot of things," says Abercrombie. "It was a guitar trio, which was something I always liked to play in, to play traditional music. But it also gave me the opportunity to play around with this beast of a thing called the synthesizer; I fooled around with it for almost the entire period. A lot of people didn't like it, but that's where I was at the time. Marc, having played with Bill Evans, gave me a strong connection to that music, which I loved. Then Peter brought in the whole Weather Report element. Sometimes we would improvise these sorts of rock pieces that would sound better than anything I could write. And so I had this lyrical bassist and lyrical drummer who were also capable of playing really loud and strong, really bringing the fusion element to the music if we wanted it. The original quartet couldn't do that, because we had an acoustic piano. I think the reason to switch up was that desire to play louder, more open kind of music, not having a keyboard dictating where I could go."

Dan Wall and Adam Nussbaum

Abercrombie's third group, another trio, also lasted about seven years, but represented a significant change over the group with Johnson and Erskine. Playing with organist Dan Wall and drummer Adam Nussbaum, the ensemble was rooted in the organ trio tradition, but took a more modern slant. "The trio with Adam and Dan came about because I've always loved playing with organ," explains Abercrombie. "Adam and I actually had a record date with another organist, Jeff Palmer, a really good organ player, but very abstract. I remember we did a couple of projects with him, and I was really taken with that combination, this guitar, organ and drums combination, but with a more modern approach. And so we got together with Dan Wall one time, and it was just obvious from the beginning that we wanted to do this. I think the desire to do it was to get back to the sound of the organ, which is something I've used on Timeless and another CD called Night ; plus my roots go back to organ trio playing, from playing with a guy named Johnny Hammond Smith back in the late '60s, which was my first real jazz gig.

"Also, I'd always wanted to play with Adam," continues Abercrombie, "because he's one of the most comfortable drummers in the world to play with, he has such a great wide-open feel. You can play anything with him and it all works because he's just so adaptable, and he swings so hard, and I really wanted somebody who had a little more of that kind of feel on drums. Erskine had a different feel; Adam is a little more related to Elvin Jones and that kind of drumming, and I was having a really strong pull in that direction."

Enrico Rava


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