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Interviews

John Abercrombie: All About the Sound

By Published: August 6, 2007

"Wishing Bell"

AAJ: "Wishing Bell might be my favorite on the record. It might be Joey's finest moment, with the polyrhythmic cymbals he plays here. This is one of the longer pieces, but it sure doesn't feel like it. This one's very sunlit and airy. You talked about how the band plays with a good amount of dynamics, and here the band really varies its intensity—it really cooks during Feldman's solo, and then turns it down a notch for Marc's bass solo without getting louder or softer at all. It's a change of intensity that has nothing to do with volume.

JohnJA: Hmm. I guess that's true. Well, this one is another piano tune. I wrote this one on the piano. The title comes from the fact that when the melody first comes in [singing it], it reminded me of "If I Were a Bell. This one also came out very quickly on the piano; it just seemed to flow. Once these things start, you just kind of follow them through—that's how I write. You improvise a little melody or harmony, and if you're turned on, and attracted by what you just played, you try to develop it, just like you'd develop an improvised solo. It's about development.

So I think it wrote itself in about ten or fifteen minutes, and after I played it around, I realized that it reminded me of "If I Were a Bell —at least the beginning melodic fragment. So that's why its title is "Wishing Bell. It's a reference to "If I Were a Bell, even though the tunes have nothing to do with one another at all harmonically.

It's a very open piece. Feldman came to the house once; he wanted to run down the tunes with just me. He took the train up to where I live, and we sat down and played through the melodies. And while we were playing this tune, he made a suggestion. I said, "How can we make this tune different? He said, "Well, if you just added a couple of beats to this bar—instead of making it a bar of 4/4, make it a bar of 6/4. At this one place [singing the melody in that section], we made the bar two beats longer, so when we played the next phrase, it sounded more dramatic with these two extra beats. Somehow adding these two beats to the bar made the memory stand out. I couldn't believe it. It sounded better. I couldn't figure out why it sounded better, but it did. So there was a case where somebody made a suggestion about actually changing the song a little bit, to give it a different feel.

It's a very open-sounding tune. It's very light, it's very optimistic. I like it a lot too; I think it came out really nicely on the record. It's probably one of the first tunes I wrote for this recording that I liked, and I kind of made a note of it and actually committed it to music paper. A lot of times I wait until I feel I really like a tune before I actually put pen to paper. I don't start writing it down right away. But if it's something I hear that I like, I start to jot down fragments of it, and when it's all finished, I write it out—to the best of my ability.

Usually I write it out wrong. I do that a lot. People correct me. People will say, "Did you want this to be eighth notes, or sixteenth notes? Then I'll play it, and they'll say, "Oh—you want sixteenth notes. A lot of my songs never get written out exactly like they're played. If you were a musician, and played it from the written music exactly like I had written it on the page, it would sound—not right. The notes would be right, but the rhythms would be wrong. And occasionally, some of the notes might be wrong, too. It's kind of a working-through process.

But I liked this tune immediately when I wrote it. I wasn't sure of the title; I told my wife I was thinking of calling it "Wishing Bell, and she thought it seemed kind of corny. But the more I lived with the title, the more I liked it.

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Comping and Accompaniment

AAJ: You do some comping—I guess I'd call it comping—on this song, and I'm not always a big fan of comping on guitar or piano. I don't like when it feels by-the-numbers, but I really think the way you comp in this band is great, and I don't think anyone else does it exactly like you. On "Wishing Bell, you're playing alongside Marc Johnson's solo, and your comping is just tiny, so unpushy—just these small arpeggios, little double stops. It seems like you get as much pleasure from playing a little as playing a lot.

JA: Yeah, I do. And I get just as much pleasure out of being an accompanist as being a soloist. That's something I learned a long time ago, when I was a student up in Boston. I remember doing some gigs in the old Combat Zone in Boston, with rhythm-and-blues bands. You had to work with a singer, and I worked with this one singer who kind of sang like Lou Rawls a little bit. I remember that he made a comment to me one night. Actually, a couple of guys in the band did. They said, "You know, you're really a good accompanist. You play nice behind a singer. You really support them.

And I realized ages ago that this was really something that I enjoyed doing. I enjoyed making someone else sound good, supporting someone. I think I've always approached the music from that perspective. I think that if you're a good accompanist, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to be a good soloist—but I think generally the people who are good accompanists are good soloists. Or people who play good solos usually know how to accompany pretty well.

My sort of hero in this situation would be Jim Hall. He was the first guitarist I heard on recordings when I was growing up who sounded like he really accompanied a soloist, or worked in band in a way that was different from other guitarists. Other guitarists seemed to just play sort of block chords—they played, like you say, kind of by-the-numbers. They would just play things that they knew, and sometimes it would sound good, and other times it would just sound like a little box they were playing. It didn't really add anything; it wasn't making any comments about the music.

Then I heard this album that Jim Hall did with Sonny Rollins called The Bridge (RCA Victor, 1962) when I was a kid, and from the opening tune that they play on that record, which is an old standard tune called "Without a Song, Jim's playing counterpoint to Sonny Rollins when he plays the melody.

I'd never heard anything like that before. I was sixteen years old, and I didn't know what he was doing! But I knew he wasn't playing chords; he was playing single notes, and intervals, and different combinations of things. And yet the music sounded very full and complete without him playing a lot. So I realized years ago that less could be more. You didn't have to play a lot—you just had the play the right thing. You had to learn how to accompany in a way that was not so set, not so totally predictable—yet still totally supportive.



And that's, I think, where the way I comp comes directly from Jim's concept. My actual physical approach on the guitar is different, because I play with my thumb, and my fingers, as opposed to Jim, who plays pretty much everything with a pick. But he can play with a pick and make it sound just fantastic, and I abandoned the pick because I got tired of the way I sounded with a pick. But I always accompanied with my fingers, even when I was a kid. I gravitated to using my fingers when I was playing chords, or doing accompaniment, because I liked the sound better.

John

I think that's another thing—the way I comp sounds nicer because there's no pick involved. It doesn't sound like I'm strumming the chords, or nailing them with a pick. It's softer, like a piano. Sometimes I think it's akin to an electric piano sound—a sort of warm, fuzzy sound. When I play chords, I like a dark, fuzzy sound. It's definitely more like a piano, or organ.

And I realize now that the other guy that influenced me when I heard him was a Canadian guitarist named Lenny Breau. I don't know if you're familiar with him.

AAJ: You know, I'm not.

JA: He was just amazing. He died quite young. He was the kind of guy who could play anything, which is probably what made him such a confusing guy to pin down. He played great country guitar. He could play beautiful flamenco guitar, and make it so convincing. Yet he could also play bebop and play jazz. But he played all with his fingers, and he had one of the most beautiful sounds when he played chords—it was just this lush kind of warm thing. I can't describe it; it wasn't loud, it was just perfect. And he made me very aware of how to accompany people and how to play chords.



Again, the idea of tone—Jim Hall, this guy Lenny Breau, they got beautiful sounds from their instruments, and when I was younger, that kind of popped out at me—the fact that they sounded better than some of the other guys. Why? Well, I liked their sound better. So I always tried to go for this warm tone, and that's where it came from.

I'm surprised that more people don't comp as well as they could. I think everyone gets very wrapped-up in playing their solo. A lot of people don't think so much about their accompaniment role, and with a band like this, you have to. I mean, if I just comped very straight in a sort of guitaristic manner, the music wouldn't sound as good. This group is about interplay, and supporting, and doing commentary. And I think that's what makes it sound more like a piece of music than just a song where, "Okay, boom, now we play letter A, then we play letter B, solos, end of take, next! It's more like the tunes are little journeys, sometimes, and they're collaborative.

John AAJ: Well, I think mediocre comping is something one can do while zoning out—thinking about supper. And I don't think this band zones out much.

JA: No, we don't. And I think most of the bands I've played in don't, and most of the people that I enjoy playing with don't zone out much. But I know what you mean. If you're just playing a perfunctory role, if you feel like that's what you're doing in a situation, you could be thinking about what's on TV tonight. The ability to not really be there is very easy. But when you're playing in a band where everyone is really tuned-in and contributing, you have to be in the same place or it's not going to work.

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"Round Trip" and "Epilogue"
AAJ: You've mentioned the two cover versions you do on this record, Ornette's "Round Trip and Bill Evans' "Epilogue. Both of these artists were important to you, and they are two of music's greatest melodists. I'm interested that you chose "Epilogue, because what you chose is just a forty-second piece on that record Everybody Digs Bill Evans (Riverside, 1959). It's just a snippet of chordal melody, yet you really flesh it out. I think it's the first time anyone's every covered it.

JA: I don't know if it's the first time, but it definitely hasn't been done very much. Somebody told me that a singer named Roseanna Vitro actually sang it and put lyrics to it. I became aware of this piece, again, when I was a student in Boston. When I was a kid, I bought a record called Bill Evans at Town Hall (Verve, 1966), which was with Chuck Israel on bass. I think the drummer was a guy named Arnie Wise. I don't know whatever happened to Arnie; maybe he wasn't so wise, I don't know. But it was a beautiful recording. They played a lot of trio things, and either this thing was the last thing on the record, or it was part of a suite, but Bill just played it on piano. There was no accompaniment, no bass or drums; he just played solo piano. And I remember thinking I'd never heard anything that sounded like it. It almost sounded like a little Oriental melody, because the melody was harmonized in intervals of fourths, which gave it a kind of Oriental quality.

Then I forgot about the piece for years. I never even thought about it. And I sort of stumbled on it in a book one day, maybe with one of my students. And I remembered it, and I played through it, and there was this instant connection with me—that I loved the piece, but also that it would be really great with Feldman and me dividing the melody up. I'd play the top, he'd play the bottom. I didn't even have to think about an arrangement; I just lifted it out of a book. Which I very rarely do—I usually don't learn tunes from a book, but this one I did. And as far as, as you'd say, fleshing it out or taking it beyond just playing the melody, we saw what the harmony was, and we said, "Well, let's make this another rubato ballad. We won't play it in strict tempo, and we won't play it long —because it's not the kind of piece you want to hear somebody stretch out on and play several choruses of solos.

I was just going for an atmosphere. I knew I wanted this piece. And, again, I brought it to the rehearsal, we played through it, and we did have to practice playing on it a few times. We had to practice improvising on it. It was easy enough to play the melody—the melody is very simple—but it was a matter of how you could extend it and improvise on it without putting it in time and making it a real song. We wanted to keep it more atmospheric, and follow the shape of the harmony. So that's another rubato ballad, so there are two completely rubato ballads on this record—"Number 9 and this one. I just love this song, and I remember the first time we played it in concert somewhere. It just had this atmosphere, and it was just great. You could tell that people really responded to it, because it just sounded so different.

John

And the Ornette Coleman tune—actually, that came about a little bit by default. I was looking for another tune that Ornette wrote called "Ramblin'. This is another one I actually took from a book, so there are two tunes I took from a book on this CD, which is very unusual. But I printed out this page with the song "Ramblin' on it from my computer; I had one of these discs with a lot of realbooks on it, different kinds of things—a Bill Evans songbook, "Real Book Volume 1, all these things. Anyway, I printed out "Ramblin', and at the bottom of the page it printed out "Round Trip as well, because the page had two songs on it. So I played through "Ramblin', and that seemed nice, but I thought, "Well, let me look at 'Round Trip.' What's this about?

So I played the melody, which was very easy to read and play through, and I just thought, "Oh, no—this is more what I'm looking for. It was a swing jazz tune, and I wanted that flavor on the record. "Ramblin' has a different sort of feel. I knew I wanted something on the record that had this sort of open swing feel where you improvise with a swing feel, but with no chords. So there's no form to the tune in the improvisation.

I think the way it was recorded came out really interesting. Again, it was the first take, and I just said to Joey and Marc, "Why don't you just start it out? I'll just come in somewhere. Let's see what happens. So they just started playing; they started improvising immediately. Joey starts a rhythm and Marc just jumps in and starts to almost solo a little bit, and there's one little phrase that he plays, a little percussive phrase, that goes, "dit-dit-dit-dit. And I heard that and just jumped in behind him and kind of repeated it, and then I kind of snuck into the tune, because if you listen to the tune, I start out pretty quiet—the guitar's in the background and just creeps up as I start to play.

And then we waited to the end to play the melody. I thought that was a nice approach to it—rather than to just start on the melody and let everybody know what you're doing, just have this mysterious beginning where it could be anything, and then have this solo begin right away and play the melody to the song at the end. Not at the beginning. I think it came out great. It's the only tune where Feldman doesn't solo; he just plays the melody. He didn't want to take a solo on it, and I respected that.

AAJ: Right, he just comes in for the theme. I think Marc and Joey just murder this song—in a good way, mind you.

JA: Oh, yeah. On the first two records, we have similar kinds of tunes. On the first one, there was a piece called "Stop and Go, which is similar to this tune. It's just a little melody with a bass line and no chords. And on the second record, there was a tune called "Swirls, which is just a series of these weirdo lines that I wrote where we improvise in the same kind of manner.

But this one is maybe the most successful of our recorded ventures into this kind of playing. Live, we get into it all the time, and some of the live versions would probably dwarf this one quite a bit, but this is the best one like this I've done with them in the studio. Again, we used to refer to this type of playing back in the seventies, when I first moved to New York, as "time no changes. Which means exactly what it says—you're playing in a rhythm, but there are no chords to adhere to. You don't have to follow a harmonic form. You're not playing a song with a harmonic form, but you can refer to parts of the melody, you can refer to parts of the harmony that the melody suggests, or you can go completely away from all that and just play anything you want—but you're still playing in time.

I think I like that kind of playing because it's hard. It's hard to sustain it if you don't have a form with chords. In a certain way, you almost become more aware of how the piece is flowing along because you don't have this harmony to glue the song together. As Charles Lloyd used to say to me, you're out there playing without a net. And that's what it is. You don't really know where you're going; you're just feeling your way through it. So it can be kind of hit-and-miss, this playing. Obviously, the more you do it, the better you get at it, but when you don't have a strict harmonic form to follow, you are playing without that harmonic net underneath you that keeps everything together. Again, another way I really like to play.

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