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Artist Profiles

John Abercrombie: Timeless

By Published: July 17, 2004

The recordings are always a little more controlled because they're done in a studio and you're trying to get a certain thing down. But anything can happen on the gig.

By Bill Milkowski

Over the past 30 years, since the 1974 recording of Timeless , his groundbreaking debut for the ECM label, John Abercrombie has remained one of the most genuinely original guitar voices of his generation (which would include such heavyweight colleagues as John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Mike Stern and Pat Metheny). A fearless improvisor who is as comfortable in purely free settings as he is blowing over changes, Abercrombie has consistently surrounded himself with creative players and made uncompromising choices throughout his 30-year association with ECM, whether it was his evocative duets with fellow guitarist Ralph Towner, his Gateway cooperative trio with Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland, as the leader of various trios and quartets since the '70s or as a sideman in bands led by such fellow ECM artists as Charles Lloyd, Kenny Wheeler, Jan Garbarek, Jack DeJohnette, Colin Walcott, Enrico Rava, Barre Phillips and Dave Liebman.

As he approaches age 60 (on December 16th of this year), Abercrombie finds himself in the unique position of juggling four very different playing situations that appeal to different aspects of his wide-ranging musicality. There's his acoustic guitar trio with fellow six-string virtuosos Larry Coryell and Badi Assad, his working organ trio with Hammond B-3 specialist Dan Wall and drummer Adam Nussbaum (see photo), and he's also part of the renegade jazz trio Jackalope (with alto saxophonist Loren Stillman and drummer Bob Meyer) which plays the occasional gig at alternative spaces like CBGB's Gallery in downtown New York. But Abercrombie's primary outlet these days is his quartet with violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron. Together they recorded Cat 'n' Mouse in 2000 (which was released in 2002 to widespread acclaim) and have recently followed up with Class Trip. The chemistry between the four incredibly versatile, open-minded musicians borders on the telepathic on their latest ECM offering as they travel from delicate, chamber-like waltz numbers like "Cat Walk", "Descending Grace" and the title track to an urgently swinging burner like "Swirls", a free form blowout in "Illinoise", the hauntingly beautiful ballad "Jack and Betty" and the raucous rock-fueled freakout "Epilogue".

Along the way, Abercrombie strikes a remarkable accord with Feldman, a magnificent virtuoso who has been called "the Heifitz of our generation" by one noted New York violinist and teacher, Brenda Vincent. A former Nashville sessioneer, Feldman has also been a stalwart on New York's cutting edge downtown scene since the '80s. Few other working musicians today can boast of having gigged with such a diverse list of artists as Johnny Cash and John Zorn, Tammy Wynette and Kenny Wheeler, Paul Bley and the Basil Sinfonietta...and fit in perfectly in each situation. Although Abercrombie first heard Feldman play at a mid '80s workshop in Banff, Canada, they didn't begin working together until 1998, when the violinist was recruited to play alongside John's organ trio on Open Land. Since that time, Feldman's violin has become a vital part of Abercrombie's writing for the the new quartet.

"I really enjoy playing with Mark a lot," says John. "Of course, guitar and violin is a classic combination going back to Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti or Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli and all the way up to John McLaughlin and Jerry Goodman. I don't know if it's been done recently and I think our thing is quite different from those other combinations. We might sound a little bit like Jerry Goodman and McLaughlin at times but we don't have much of the other stuff in it and I think that's mostly due to the tunes I write and the way Mark improvises. I don't know if there are many other people playing that instrument who can play my tunes. That's what's so great about him...he can improvise over chords, he can improvise freely, he can really do it all because he's got so much experience, plus, he's a classically trained violinist. So it's just great having him in the quartet."

Feldman's bold, beautiful tone, graceful lyricism and stunning virtuosity is a perfect match for Abercrombie's own legato approach to the guitar. That blend is apparent on the darkly evocative opener "Dansir", their guitar-violin intro to the chamber-like "Risky Business" and the dynamic "Swirls". Feldman's classical pedigree also comes in handy on the quartet's improvised arrangement of Bela Bartok's "Soldier's Song" (from the 44 Duos for Two Violins), which serves as a springboard into some spontaneous counterpoint between guitarist and violinist.

"Some of the counterpoint is written, but not much," Abercrombie explains. "There's a lot of really open space for me to play counterpoint against Mark, or vice versa. That's the way we like to keep it. I don't like too much written down because then you can't vary it, you can't move from the printed page."

Underscoring the action throughout is the world class empathetic rhythm section of drummer Joey Baron and bassist Marc Johnson. A member of John Zorn's Masada and Naked City bands as well as a leader of his own Down Home Band and Killer Joey, Baron has recorded and toured with such a wide range of artists as Stan Getz, Carmen McRae, Lee Konitz, Tim Berne, Jim Hall, Pat Martino, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Laurie Anderson, Dave Douglas, Mark Murphy, Misha Mengelberg, Fred Hersch and David Sanborn. Johnson, a member of Bill Evans' last trio, has appeared on five ECM records by Abercrombie as well as on other recordings by Dino Saluzzi, Charles Lloyd, Eliane Elias, Ralph Towner, John Taylor, John Scofield, Toots Thielemans, Patricia Barber, Peter Erskine, Lee Konitz and Joe Lovano. He also leads the two-guitar band Bass Desires, which has featured Bill Frisell with either John Scofield or Pat Metheny.

"This rhythm section is unbelievable," Abercrombie acknowledges. "Joey is one of those guys who can play anything. He spent all those years on the West Coast playing real traditional jazz with people like Carmen McRae and then he moved to New York and went over into a completely other spectrum with people like John Zorn and Tim Berne. So I think a band like this is one of the bands that affords him an opportunity to do everything he can do because I want to play a lot of things in time but I also want to get very free and abstract. He's the best drummer - I have to say without a doubt - for playing spontaneous, improvised stuff. His concentration never seems to falter and he always seems to be so in the moment and he's able to keep the spontaneous stuff interesting. He's also one of the quickest musicians I've ever encountered. He can stop on a dime and his instincts are always so right, moreso than anyone I've ever played with in that regard."

"And Marc's contribution to the band is, of course, unbelievable. Like any other band, everybody brings all of their experience to the table and so you've got all these different elements going on. And as long as everybody really listens you can create some amazing music. So I'm very happy playing with this band and I think it's got combinations of all the things I like to do. We play on chords, we play freely, we get into some rock 'n' roll grooves that are pretty authentic because when Joey plays rock 'n' roll he sounds like a rock 'n' roll drummer. He doesn't play it like a jazz player, which is a very different thing. I've never played with anyone like that, except maybe DeJohnette."

He adds that while the group comes across on the new record like an abstract strings and percussion enemble, it can take on an entirely different character in concert. "I enjoy freely improvising in this band probably more than any band I've been in. Other bands I've had dabbled in free improv stuff but this band can really do it well. It just feels very spontaneous and I love the way it changes direction so easily. Some of the freer improvs we get into live are almost better than the tunes themselves. The recordings are always a little more controlled because they're done in a studio and you're trying to get a certain thing down. But anything can happen on the gig."

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