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John Abercrombie: All About the Sound

By Published: August 6, 2007

The Quartet's Development, the Power of Dynamics, and The Third Quartet

JA: Anyway, that's kind of how the band came about. What it's about or how I see it developing is—well, in the beginning, it was an opportunity for me to actually venture into some more open areas that I hadn't done with the organ trio, or I hadn't done with Marc Johnson and [drummer] Peter Erskine when we had that trio. It seemed like a great opportunity, because of the people involved, to delve into these areas. Plus, I wanted the sound of the violin. That was something that attracted me a lot to this group: just the sound of violin and guitar. I wanted the band to be more acoustic. "Acoustic is the word I use, even though I'm an electric guitarist. I wanted an acoustic quality to this band, and I think that's what we got. It's basically a string band—you've got upright bass, what is essentially acoustic violin—

AAJ: Right, Mark doesn't even play through an amp.

JA: He did in the early days when we got together. He used an amp, but then he decided he didn't like that, and I agreed with him. He found this really great Neumann microphone, and bought a new violin, and we tried that out. He's able to play totally acoustically with the microphone. So the band's even more acoustic, because he's acoustic. And Marc Johnson uses light amplification, and of course I use my usual array of amplifiers.

But the volume level of the band is pretty wide. There's a wide dynamic range. But it doesn't get overly loud. Maybe only once a night does the music really get to any kind of high decibel levels, and usually at that point, it's just a guitar trio bash-out—so Feldman can just go sit on the side and read a book if he wants while we go crazy.

I think that's what I was looking for—a band that had a wide dynamic range, that was a little more acoustic, that would delve into these freer areas of improvisation. Those areas, with this particular band, excite me more than with any other band, I think because of the people involved, but also because of the instrumentation. So that when we do play very freely and make things up, or go off into these zones, it sounds more like chamber music to me. It's not like free jazz, whatever that is—with the violin and guitar and acoustic bass, it becomes almost like 20th-century classical music, or something you can't even put your finger on.

AAJ: Yeah, it's something new.

JA: It's something kind of new, and I think it's because the people involved are just so creative. Having Feldman is just like having a little string section behind you sometimes. He'll just jump in and start playing behind me on tunes, playing double-stops or making little quotes, and it's like having a little orchestra. It's very cool, and it inspires me to play in particular ways.

It gives the band, like you say, a particular sound. The band has this color and this sound that is, I think, pretty unique by today's standards. You don't get to hear a lot of bands with great violin players, especially playing this kind of music. You still get to hear some guys playing standards on violin, and that has a particular sound, reminiscent of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, but you don't hear this kind of music. Very rarely.


That's kind of what the band's about. How has it developed? That's always kind of hard to put a finger on; it's hard to say where there's been a development. But I definitely agree with you in that I think this new record is not a radical departure in any way from the other ones, and that I like it somehow the best of the three. To me, the first one, Cat 'n' Mouse, was kind of dark and more mysterious. It was the most mysterious of the bunch, the most brooding. The second one [Class Trip (ECM, 2004)] was a little more playful. It had some dark moments, but I think that overall, it was a little more tune-oriented; there wasn't as much free improvisation on it. And the third one has the least amount of free improvisation on it. The only tune that really gets what I'd call free free is the Ornette Coleman tune, "Round Trip. That one's more of a setup for playing some open swing music à la Ornette. Only Ornette can write these kinds of tunes, and that was a tune I just stumbled across. It was so easy to play, just to play the melody, and I thought it would be a great vehicle.

So I see this third album as being even more compositional. It's not that free. It's very loose, and it's played very freely. Like you said, no one is told what to play. We just kind of play through the songs. That's what I do—I just write songs. "Composition is a funny word, and to me it sometimes means really composing, dictating, writing the whole thing out. Whereas with this kind of music, it's just a song, and it's open for interpretation. So that's what we do: We play the songs, and we decide amongst ourselves what sounds the best. I usually say, "Tthis is the way I kind of envision the song, and this is the feeling I'm looking for, and then we play it. And it that doesn't work, we try something else!

I leave it very much up to the guys, and they're so good at coming up with suggestions. "Let's play this with a different feel. "Let's play this in 6/8. "Maybe I'll use brushes here. "Why don't you play it just with the violin? It kind of becomes a group effort in terms of how to play the songs. Yet I write them, and I have a basic idea of how I want them to sound—but it's not written in stone, and I think that because it's so open, everyone can play what they feel. And hopefully, feel that they're contributing to the overall success and not being told what to play, not just playing a role.

That also allows the tunes to come out differently on gigs. There's a general approach to each song, but sometimes they just go in completely different directions than they did on the record. And that's what I like—I'm not out there to just spit out what I did on the recording exactly. It's not a show; we're just playing this music, and if it happens to take a different shape, that's what makes it interesting for me—that it's not being played the same way all the time. So that's kind of a summation of what I think the group is about.

AAJ: Incidentally, while I don't think I've ever heard Feldman play in a scared way, ever, I do think that on this new CD, he sounds completely fearless. He never sounded uncomfortable, but he sounds utterly comfortable in this band now.

JA: Exactly. That's true. And it's interesting, because when we made this recording, we hadn't played together in a while. I don't think we'd played a gig for a year—at least seven or eight months. We hadn't done anything. And the record date was postponed several times, and then finally [ECM label head/producer] Manfred Eicher said, "Well, go ahead and do the record by yourselves. I can't be there. By the time we went in to do the recording, we hadn't really been on the road, or played any gigs, or anything.

It was the same procedure as all the other CDs. There was one rehearsal for three or four hours, maximum, and then maybe a day off before we go right into the studio and begin recording. So it's interesting that the band sounds even more comfortable than the other recordings, and it sounds that way to me, too. In a way, anyway—I think they all have strong qualities. As I say, I see the three CDs as slightly different from each other, even though this isn't a radical departure. I don't know if it's really a development, but the band's been changing a little bit, and I think it has to do with trust and having played together over the years enough that we feel really comfortable as a band. Even if we haven't played for a year, we can come together, and within one gig, we're back on track and actually playing at a different level, because we've all had different experiences while being apart.

AAJ: Well, let me tell you that before I got a copy of this record, I was pretty convinced that Class Trip was the greatest thing ever. So if the new CD is better, it's not that the group has finally made a decent record.

JohnJA: Yeah, when we did Class Trip, I thought we'd really come up another level. But not too long ago, I went back and listened to some of Cat 'n' Mouse, because I was trying to remember some of the tunes, and I realized that it was really a nice record too. It was just different. I think this one just feels more solid, in a way; there's just something solidified about it. I just think it sounds more like, "Okay, now we really agree on things. But I like them all, and like I said, when I did Class Trip, I thought it was really great. We were all really excited about it.

AAJ: Do you write specifically for this band?

JA: Not particularly. There are a couple of pieces that I envisioned this group playing. From the new record, there's a piece called "Vingt Six —the number 26 in French—which was written specifically for playing with Feldman. It's almost a classical-sounding piece, and he just plays it perfectly. There's also a piece called "Tres, which is also a number, the number three in Spanish, mostly because it's a waltz and has a slightly Spanish tinge in it. That was written with Feldman in mind, too, and I chose the Bill Evans piece we do, "Epilogue, because I thought it would sound perfect with the violin and the guitar playing the melody together.

AAJ: This is a particularly fantastic-sounding record. I think it's got one of the best drum sounds I've heard in a while.

JA: Well, all these records were done in the same studio with the same engineer. The only difference between this record and the other two is that Manfred Eicher wasn't present for the recording of this one. He was present at the mix, and he realized that this one was recorded so well by James Farber that he really didn't need to do much—just a little level changing and a little bit of the famous ECM reverb stamp, but he didn't overdo that, fortunately. I think it's the best-sounding one of the bunch, and I don't know why. I don't think it's necessarily because Manfred wasn't there! I don't know, but I agree. The guitar sounds the best I've heard it on any of the recordings so far, and so do all the instruments. Joey's sound on drums is pretty unique—I think I could tell who it was by listening to him play on any recording. I would know it was Joey.

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