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John Abercrombie: Extending the Tradition

By Published: May 11, 2004
"But I remember riding in a car with Manfred, on the way to a recording date," Abercrombie continues, "and he asked me what was new, so I said, '"Well, I just got together with Jack and Dave and we played a few tunes." He asked to hear it, so I stuck it in the cassette machine in the car, and after about two minutes he said, "Oh, we should really record this trio, it's great." We weren't even thinking about recording it, so there's a case of Manfred's insight coming and taking charge and actually causing the group to form."

Abercrombie has high praise for Manfred Eicher's contributions, in terms of putting together groups of musicians and the recording process. "Manfred is totally unique," Abercrombie says. "He always seems to find some part of your playing or some part of a composition that you don't hear, and he's able to draw out other elements that I think maybe an American producer, or one who doesn't have his aesthetic, would not even hear; they would probably say, 'Gee, that sounded like a good solo, let's do another.' They'd be thinking more in terms of traditional jazz and that's another way I separate from traditional jazz guitar playing is through my association with ECM and Manfred; having played with many European musicians and having Manfred as a producer. He's the one that got me more into playing with a volume pedal, for example. He always thought that when I used the volume pedal I sounded kind of like a violin, so he used to make all these references to Isaak Stern, and he'd say, 'Oh John, give me some more Isaak.' And that was something I probably would not have thought of on my own, or I wouldn't have tried to develop it, but at that point, when we were recording some of those records, he really drew me into a way of playing that opened up my ears to making the guitar sound not so much like a guitar."

With Gateway being Abercrombie's first real experience playing in a free context, it was one that would ultimately inform his later evolution. "As far as playing that kind of music I don't think there's a better rhythm section on the planet to play it with. They're so quick; they can turn on a dime. We can play things where we sound like we're playing in a tempo and we're really not, just playing off each other there's no specific tempo being set down, but all these tempos would be implied. That's what I learned a lot, playing with Gateway, to play this kind of more open music, and make it sound logical. I never liked a lot of free jazz because it sounded too random to me, so the idea was to play music that had no form and make it sound like you were playing on a form. That also influenced how I would play traditional music; by playing freely I would come back and play a standard song and my approach would start to free up because I had been playing with them. So I've found a lot of times the freer, open playing feeds the more traditional playing; and with the more traditional playing you can take all the elements that you practice in traditional song form playing and apply them to free playing too. So you get this kind of interesting mix; I'm always trying to make things sound like they make sense.

"And Dave is very good at writing what Jack DeJohnette would call, 'Dave's little cups of tea,'" concludes Abercrombie. "They're just these little melodies with a bass line, and when you hear them they make a complete composition, even though when you improvise on them you don't improvise over a chord pattern; you improvise on the spirit of the song."

Kenny Wheeler

The other long-standing relationship that has helped shape Abercrombie has been with trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler. "I first met Kenny around the time we did this record called Deer Wan ," says Abercrombie, "and I think what attracted me to Kenny and playing his music was his music; it was just instantaneous. When I heard his songs they made sense to me somehow; even though I had trouble playing them and I couldn't always negotiate all the harmonies the way I would have liked to. But there was something about them that just made an immediate connection to me. And his playing; I remember talking with Kenny about this because when I first heard him play he reminded me so much, in a way, of Booker Little. Talking with Kenny one time, I found that Booker Little was one of his biggest influences.

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