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John Abercrombie: Extending the Tradition

By Published: May 11, 2004
"And Little was a tremendous influence on me, even though I don't talk about him a lot," continues Abercrombie. "I used to have some of those records he did with Max Roach, and I just loved his playing and his writing so much. He's one of those guys who was an influence on me even though he played another instrument and I never listened to him a lot; it's just that there was something about him that grabbed me, there was an emotional impact, and I think that's where a lot of the reason for playing comes from. It's emotional; you get that chill up your spine when you hear something; when you hear Bill Evans play a chord or you hear Miles phrase a melody, it's an emotional response, and I think that's the way it should be, it should be emotional."

Current Quartet and Free Playing

With Abercrombie's final recording of the Wall/Nussbaum trio, '99's Open Land, he made a move towards a freer direction that would be further developed with his current quartet, consisting of violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron. "Open Land doesn't have anything that's totally improvised," explains Abercrombie, "there are at least themes. Even the tune "Open Land" is a theme that was inspired by listening to this Hungarian composer who wrote a lot of compositions based around folk music, and when I heard it I really related to it. So "Open Land," the piece, is inspired by listening to that composer. But it's just a set-up, it's just a theme and you can use parts of the theme or not when you're improvising. I like free playing that has some relationship to a melody; very much the way Ornette Coleman used to write all those wonderful songs and then they would play without chords on a lot of them; but they still had these great melodies to draw you in and act as a reference point; I think having a reference point when you're playing this kind of music is very important.

"I think that's one of the ways I look at free playing," continues Abercrombie. "With the current quartet, on the first CD we did, Cat 'n' Mouse , there are two pieces that are just totally improvised, and I think with a band like this the level of communication is so strong and Feldman has such a powerful influence on the music; the way he improvised because he's used to playing a lot of very free music without any form whatsoever, and just the nature of the violin playing this way, the way Marc Johnson and Joey play, we create chamber music. Years ago, I did some things that were completely free, but not so much in recent years; so this band is something of a departure. Sometimes we'll go on stage and we'll just make up something, we'll make up the first piece and work our way into a composition.

"The way that Oregon would start off a set with a free improvisation influenced me a lot," Abercrombie continues. "They would create these little miniatures; it was almost like you were listening to a Stravinsky piece or something. And I said to myself, that when I improvise freely, that's the way I'd like to improvise; more in that direction than free jazz, because it sounds more compositional; I think the element of composition is a very important aspect in playing freely, and I want something to have this feeling like it's composed, and not just random noise. I want it to feel like there's some intelligence behind it, and some thought process."

Putting the New Quartet Together

In forming the current quartet, Abercrombie's first priority was to continue the relationship begun with Mark Feldman, who guested on Open Land. "I knew I wanted to play with Feldman," explains Abercrombie, "because from Open Land it felt like a natural development. Marc Johnson came into it because he's my favorite bassist, and I wanted to reconnect with him if he was interested. Joey Baron actually came about by default. I never told Joey this, but the original drummer I had planned for this project was Billy Hart, because Billy and I had been playing with Charles Lloyd, and I just enjoyed Billy's playing so much; I think he's one of the true masters, and I wanted to include him. Then he called, I think it was a few weeks before the recording date, and he said he had this gig with Pat Martino out in California, and he had to take it; he needed the money. And so I was left with this record date fixed with all these people and I needed a drummer.

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