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John Abercrombie: Extending the Tradition

By Published: May 11, 2004
"So I got a drum list from Adam Nussbaum," continues Abercrombie, "I said, 'Can you email me a list of all the drummers you have?' So he sent me this list and one of the first names on the list was Joey Baron, and as soon as I saw his name I knew I had to call him. So we spoke, and he said, Yeah, I can make the date,' but I had no idea where it was going to go. When I was living in New York I had a loft and sometimes Joey would bring his drums by and we'd just play duo, or we'd play with Marc Johnson; so we already had a little connection. We would do everything from playing standards to my tunes to completely free; or sometimes we would just throw out a name, like Aretha Franklin, and we would try to play something that reminded us of Aretha. So I knew Joey had the imagination, and I also knew he could play very inside and traditional, because he subbed for Peter Donald one night, years ago, with my first quartet. I knew Joey could play pretty much anything, but still I didn't know what to expect.

"And I was really blown away," concludes Abercrombie. "I think of all the drummers that I've worked with, Joey is the most flexible, believe it or not. I think he's the best free drummer, playing just improvised music, that I've ever played with because he has the ability to concentrate on small ideas and let them develop. And I find that if everyone in the band is in tune with that, then you can play this sort of improvised collective music and have it make sense; but if people don't have the concentration, then the music will just fall short because you don't have enough of a form to fall back on. He's one of the best musicians I've ever played with; I can't say enough about playing with him, he can do anything he wants."


The material that Abercrombie has written for this group ranges from bare sketches to more fully composed material. "Some of the tunes are very specific," Abercrombie says, "others might just be a line, or a few lines. There's a piece on Cat 'n' Mouse called "Convolution," which is just a series of three independent lines. We play one line, and then we improvise; then we play the second line and improvise; then we go back and forth between these two lines, which are completely out of tempo, and then we play the third line, which dictates the tempo. So there's a form to the improvisation, but there are no chords; there's no particular structure but there is an overall approach. A lot of times I bring in pieces like that, and then, other times, I write my waltzes. As a matter of fact I was going to call the new record Three and More , because almost every tune on it is either a waltz or a triple meter kind of tune, but ultimately I ended up calling it Class Trip , which I think is catchier."

Abercrombie has always had a predilection for 3/4 time, so the emphasis on triple meter on the new record comes as no surprise. "It's always felt very natural to me," explains Abercrombie. "I don't know why, I could make a joke and say I never learned to count to four; but I think what it is about waltzes is that when I first started playing them I realized I felt a lot of rhythmic freedom; I could impose 4/4, I could play four against three. When you approach a waltz that way it opens the waltz up; and then you start to realize that no matter what tempo you're playing in, or what the rhythm is, there are a lot of subdivisions and layers of rhythm that you can superimpose. And I found it was easier for me to superimpose 4/4 over3/4 than the other way around; I always felt more natural playing the four against three. That just drew me into waltzes somehow; Bill Evans has recorded a lot of waltzes, you know, "Waltz for Debby," "Alice in Wonderland," all these tunes that had a strong emotional impact on me when I was younger. So I think the combination of that plus just the freedom I felt in a waltz; not everybody feels that way, I have some students that have said they always had a hard time playing in three; but for me it came very naturally."

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