John Abercrombie: Extending the Tradition
Class Trip , while continuing the freedom-with-inner-logic approach of Cat 'n' Mouse , is actually more structured, with a stronger sense of form. But a lot of how the pieces develop has to do with the interplay and interpretation of the ensemble. "Usually I bring in a piece, put it in front of everybody and we talk about it," Abercrombie says. "I usually have some kind of concept, I say, 'We're going to play this line and then I think we should improvise freely, or improvise at a tempo,' and then we play through the piece. But I also try to rely a lot on how the musicians are going to interpret these things; they may do something with it that I might never think of; in fact, most of the time they do. And that's what I like most about the bands I've played with. I think everyone who has had a band kind of feels that way; that the band itself forms how the music will be played; it's not dictated by any one person. Even though the original concept may come from me, the tunes may wind up sounding totally different in the end. I think what happens with any group is this incredible development of trust and freedom that you have when you know somebody. I think this band has developed a lot in terms of that, I think we're able to trust where everybody's going to go, and we don't worry about it so much. That's always an issue when you first put a band together, trying to trust everybody's sense of rhythm, their intuition, and where they're going to go with it.
Unlike many bands recording today, Abercrombie still has a fairly direct approach to recording, with very little done in the way of editing. "They're pretty much done as they're done," explains Abercrombie. "Obviously they're mixed, and this is where Manfred comes, perhaps, to his biggest creative point, because he really is great at hearing the music and putting it into some kind of landscape, or deciding how it would work best on the recording.
"But the only editing we do occasionally," continues Abercrombie, "like on the new record, is to fix something. There is this tune, called "Swirls," it's a bunch of lines that I play and then we improvise, but the lines are supposed to be played out of tempo. After the solos, I played the first line again, and Marc and Joey started to walk a jazz type of a tempo, and I had no idea how to put these lines in a tempo because they were originally conceived with no tempo. So I had to try and play them against their rhythm; I did the best I could but I really fudged some of them; Feldman, very intelligently stayed out of the whole mess, he didn't bother trying to play the lines with me, he waited until the end and then that was the end of the tune. We liked the take except the passage that sounded really messed up, it didn't sound very good. Mark went in and overdubbed the lines; he tried to approximate what I did, and he did it pretty much on the money, I don't know how he did it. In that case that was an edit; there are small edits along the way, more as repairs. We never use stuff like Protools; it's just not even a consideration, I wouldn't even know how to do that stuff. I know a lot of people do it now, they fix things and change the entire sound of something by patching in different parts of solos; I've never done that."
Still, while Abercrombie experiments with the freedom that can be found within formal structure, at the end of the day his focus is to develop within that jazz tradition. But the challenge is always to find new means of expression, ways to escape the patterns that years of playing can sometimes impose. "When I practice I play things that are a little more traditional," Abercrombie explains. "But keeping things fresh, I think, has to do with attitude, somehow it's more about how you feel when you play. It doesn't relate to how you technically play your instrument, it just has to do with what the music sounds like. Sometimes I have to make a conscious effort to play something different. I find one of the things I talk about with my students, when I teach, is to try to follow your train of thought. When you start improvising you start with some idea, whether you are playing on a song form or playing completely free; there's some motif or element that starts your solo. And I'm a believer in trying to let that guide you through your solo, rather than being concerned about what you think you should be playing."