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John Abercrombie: All About the Sound

By Published: August 6, 2007

"Banshee" and the Manfred Eicher Influence

AAJ: Let's talk about some tunes on the record.

"Banshee is, to me, the perfect opening track. There's something almost overture-like about it, and it may have the sparsest structure on the album, which gives all four of you a lot of freedom. It's all about that melodic figure that you state at the beginning, and then you and Mark just sort of play these wonderful little variations on that theme phrase over Joey's cymbal pulse and Marc Johnson's bass rumble, before you and Mark go into that violin/guitar call and response. Tell me about this one.

JA: Well, that song is not really something you compose—like you say, it's just a simple little melodic line that repeats. It has a different bass note under the melody the second time the melody comes in. I think it's in G minor, and then when it repeats, the bass note is C. So it kind of moves up a fourth. Then it returns back to G, and then the playing is completely open.

But it's more modal. It's more just a drone-oriented sort of piece that's based around G minor and C minor, and you can do anything you want in between. But we stay pretty close to the tonalities, which gives it more of a Indian quality. Well, not Indian, but it has that drone quality, where you really get the sense of the tonic and what the harmony is throughout the whole piece.

Originally, that wasn't supposed to be the opening piece on the record. We were going to open with a ballad called "Number 9, but after Manfred got the music back to Germany, he called me, and we both agreed that this would be the best opener. It's strong, and it's got energy to it—a certain kind of energy that the ballads don't have. It was written, I think, the day before the recording. We didn't even rehearse this piece because it's just such a simple melody. I was sitting on my deck in the back of the house, and I was thinking, "I need something. Something a little different, something more open. A kind of piece I hadn't written for the record. So I just sat out on the deck and played this little melody, and said, "That's it. We'll use this. When I go in the studio, I'll just show it to Feldman.


There was no need to write it out; I just played it for him. As I played him the notes, he kind of made a sketch of them, just so he could remember them, and once we played the melody together and decided what kind of feel we wanted, we just did it, in one take. And I think "Banshee is a good title.

AAJ: For a free piece—and like you say, it's just a little something you all play on modally—it's really a song in the sense that I have been hearing it play in my head for days. There is something memorable and song-like about the notes.

JA: Yeah, you're right. It's one of the little areas I like to get into when I play. It's always hard to come up with these kind of melodies to sort of set up an atmosphere, you know, because you don't want a lot. You just need a small statement of a melody, and maybe a sense of harmony, and then you play from that sound. You don't have a structure to play off of, you don't have chords, and you don't have a form. You just have this open thing, and I think that's a way I've always liked to play, and I know Manfred likes this, too, a lot. Because he's responsible, maybe, for me getting into this type of playing.

When I first started recording for him on ECM, he would suggest me, in his terms, "flying across the rhythm, just having something really open, with an open cymbal sound. That influenced me, and it's really interesting that, even though Manfred was not at this recording, he was, in a way, because this record doesn't depart that much from the other ones. It's similar to them sonically, and if you heard that tune come on somewhere, you might say, "Oh, this could be an ECM record. You get that feeling that it's still within the realm of ECM.

And that's the influence of ECM, and Manfred. I didn't play those kinds of pieces until I got involved with ECM; that wasn't part of stuff I heard. So I really owe a lot to Manfred and his input. He comes from a more classically-oriented side of music, and grew up listening to and playing classical music. He got into jazz through Bill Evans, and Paul Bley, and Miles Davis—the same people who were my heroes, and who I listened to. More lyrical, open kinds of players. That's where we come together. And with his classical influences and love of free jazz improvisation, he kind of pushed me into some of these areas that I hadn't been in before. So his presence was definitely on the record, even though he wasn't physically there.

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"Number Nine" and Rubato Balladry

AAJ: "Number 9, which you mentioned before, is well, beautiful. It feels like a very, very rubato waltz—a secret waltz. It's got a chamber-y melody that's originally stated by Mark Feldman with your mini-arpeggios dancing around him. Both of you play absolutely fantastic solos, but this piece isn't really about traditional jazz me-soloing-now, you-soloing-now. It's more about passing a melody back and forth, with those unison figures between you and Feldman holding things together.

JA: Well, it is rubato. It's totally rubato. The reason it's called "Number 9 is that it's nine measures long. There's no mystery to some of these titles. It was something I wrote on piano, because I do write a certain amount of music on piano. I love to play piano as much as I love to play guitar, even though I'm very limited on piano compared to the guitar. But I come up with things that are just so different when I compose on the piano.

John Abercrombie

This ballad just seemed to play itself; I sat down one day at the piano, and within about five minutes, the tune was finished. I ended on this last chord, with this last melodic fragment, and I said, "Well, gee, does the tune need a bridge? Does it need something more? It's very short. But I said, "No. This sounds complete. I don't have to write 32 bars, or 40 bars—what's wrong with nine? In fact, I think "Blue in Green, that old Bill Evans-Miles tune, is only about nine bars long. Anyway, I realized that if it sounds complete, it probably is.

The approach to that tune was just like you said. I don't know if I hear it as a waltz, or a secret waltz. We always refer to this kind of music as a rubato ballad. It's a ballad, but it's played without any specific tempo. It's not even conducted. I play the melody, and the first time Mark read it, he read it just the way I wanted it played. Then we just move through the tune; after the melody's stated, we just move through the harmonic sequence of chords. I sort of solo. We sort of both take solos, and there are these sort of comments along the way, and I think that's what separates it from that sort of "now we play the melody, you solo, I solo, and then we play the head out. That jazz approach. This is more about interweaving—we're all playing a little bit, together, Feldman and I being the soloist, more or less. Marc Johnson just provides the harmonic bottom, and Joey creates a nice atmosphere, a nice sound, on the drums.

Again, that's a very ECM type of approach. That's the kind of thing I probably didn't do a lot until I got involved with recording for ECM—playing things out of tempo. Which, again, is a very classical thing. When you hear the hear the word "rubato, you immediately think of looking at a piece of classical music and seeing words like "adagio, "rubato, "lento —you see all these Italian markings which mean "played very freely. That's what rubato is, but I'm beginning to realize that even with rubato, there's a sense of tempo. But it's an internal sense of tempo; you can't put a metronome onto it, you can't count it off. You just play it. And I think this is a really nice way to play. It's just another way I like to play. I like to play all of these different ways—specific tempos, different grooves, different harmonies.

And this is one of the ways I like to play in, which is basically rubato. Another way we refer to this music, when we're improvising on it, is that we "go chord to chord. We go through the piece, through the harmony of the piece, but no one is playing in a tempo. We just have to follow each other. We just have to know the song, and we have to listen to when the soloist changing to the next harmony. We really have to just feel it; it's a feel thing. When I first tried to do this, I found it very difficult, because I was used to playing everything in strict tempo. Playing this way was a real departure for me. But now I feel very at home in it.

AAJ: Well, it's something this band does particularly well.

JA: Yeah, I think so.

AAJ: I was mentioning those unison figures on that song—something not uncommon on this record. I really like the way you and Feldman do unison stuff; it's often not completely unison—you'll join him for just a few notes, or you'll play a half-second off him. There's something very organic about it that could only come from having played together for a while.

JA: Yeah. You're right: It is organic. That's one of the things I don't map out too much. For some of the tunes, I'll say, "Okay, Mark, you play the melody and I'll accompany you more or less. Then I'll play the melody on the B section and you can accompany me. So we do set certain things up, because you have to. But we also leave a lot of room for people to make comments. So if Mark wants to jump in behind me and start to play a little bit, I welcome it.

So we don't dictate it that much, and I don't feel I have to play everything so in unison, so right-on-the-money all the time. If it's a little bit off, it might actually sound a little more musical. It'll have a little more breath quality to it. With this music, I'm not trying to beat you over the head. Obviously, it's just about playing the way we feel it, and that's the way it comes out.

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