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John Abercrombie: Extending the Tradition

By Published: May 11, 2004
In and around his various groups, Abercrombie also guested on many recordings for ECM. One of the most memorable of the '70s was with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava's group, which also featured bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen. They recorded two albums for the label, The Plot and, most notably, The Pilgrim and the Stars , which is considered one of the label's classic recordings. "That particular quartet," says Abercrombie," was one of my favorite groups to play with during that period, because it was a wide open experience; playing very freely, but we were playing song forms and we were also playing stuff that didn't have any form. The rhythm section was so adaptable and musical; Palle is just an amazing joy to play with; the same with Christensen. And playing Enrico's little tunes, they just allowed you to play very openly even though you were playing over song forms; I can't describe it, but they didn't lock you in as much, even though a lot of them had harmonies and specific forms. They felt very open and the approach the musicians took to playing them was very open.

"The one thing I've noticed about a lot of us musicians," Abercrombie continues, "is that as we get older we tend to sound a little more traditional. I know Enrico definitely has; I played with him a couple of years ago, and I said, "Man, that really sounded like a solo from Miles in the '50s, and he said, 'Well, that's my shit now man, that's what I play.' And it's interesting, even though the music keeps changing my thinking is along the same lines. It's what I practice, it's what I hear. I'm going back more and more to what I started playing jazz for, but still trying to keep an ear open to things being different."

Ralph Towner

Over the years Abercrombie has forged a number of long-standing and extremely important musical relationships. One of the most important has been with guitarist/pianist/composer Ralph Towner, with whom John has worked in a duet setting over the years, recording two albums, Sargasso Sea and Five Years Later , the latter another case of an ECM recording that is sadly in need of reissue on CD. "The relationship with Ralph is very important to me," explains Abercrombie, "although we haven't done anything for quite a while. I hope we do at some point, but with Ralph now living in Italy, I don't get to see him very often.

"Before we played music," continues Abercrombie, "we became really good friends; we used to hang out a lot together. I met him in Boston when he was playing with Astrud Gilberto. I remember introducing myself and going out for dinner one night, and we immediately connected as friends. We didn't play music until I moved to New York. He was a powerful influence on me as a player and also as a composer. He's one of my favorite musicians, period, but his songs really attracted me and that influenced how I started to write songs. Also playing in a duo guitar set-up, I think that was the first time I'd ever done something like that and so that was a challenge also. I learned a lot by playing with Ralph, about how to function in that situation, because he was a great accompanist as well as a soloist; when I had to accompany Ralph, sometimes it would fall short; so I had to learn ways to accompany him so that he would feel comfortable; it really improved my guitar playing tremendously. I think that also got me into playing with my fingers a bit, because if I was playing an acoustic guitar or even the electric, I would find that if I played with my fingers when I accompanied him I could approximate more of what he does, and try to fill out the sound more and create more for him to play off of; I think that was a tremendous influence."


Another relationship that has lasted nearly thirty years is his cooperative group with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, Gateway. "Gateway was one of my first experiences playing open, free jazz," Abercrombie says. "I can't even describe what it felt like; it was like a kid being let loose in a candy store, and just being told, "You can have anything you want." They kind of dragged me along into the music, because it was new for me, and I hadn't played it, and from the get-go they were encouraging me. Dave and I played together one afternoon and he said, 'You have a natural sense for playing this kind of music.' Then we got together with Jack; actually we recorded it, we made a cassette in Jack's basement, a really low-fidelity recording.

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