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John Abercrombie: All About the Sound

By Published: August 6, 2007


AAJ: "Elvin is, of course, your tribute to drummer Elvin Jones, who's influenced, well, everyone on earth.

JA: Absolutely.

AAJ: I think it has Feldman at his absolute jazziest, great comping from you, and great, great drumming from Joey. It's probably the bluesiest moment on this record, although the theme that bookends it is really poignant, and to me, appropriately Coltrane-like.

JA: Yeah. This is a piano tune. And it started out when I wrote it just like it does on the record. When I wrote it, I wrote this rubato melody with these chords. It's kind of a repetitive melody, and the chords change just a little bit when the melody comes around again the second time, so it's not exactly the same. Then there's sort of a B melody, and then it comes back to the original melody. So when I wrote it, I just played through it, and I loved the sound of the harmony I was getting, and the way the melody was shaping itself.


But then I realized I didn't want to have another rubato ballad! So I came up with this idea for this chord sequence which is based exactly on the chords to the rubato section, but it's played in time, and it's played at a certain tempo. And that's why it's dedicated to Elvin—because the feel of the improvised section is something that, if Elvin had been on this record date, how he would have played time at this tempo. It's a slow enough tempo that Elvin's triplet-induced sort of time feel was really present. When I came up with this chord progression, I could hear him playing it. And that's where the title came from. Not as much from the melody as from the feel of the piece once it goes into time.

AAJ: When I took notes for the interview while listening to the song, I wrote down the phrase, "Elvin-style mid-tempo groove.

JA: Yeah. That's what it is. And I think any musician who hears it, as soon as we go into time and rhythm, would know that instantly. Even if it wasn't called "Elvin, someone would say, "Oh, this sounds like an Elvin slow-tempo triplet-y groove. Yet even though the melody has nothing to do with Elvin, Coltrane used to play a lot of pieces years ago where they would play a rubato type of a melody to state the theme and then the rhythm would come in. This is something I've been doing ever since I heard Coltrane—I wrote tunes where I would do that. There's a piece on one my first quartet records with Richie Beirach that starts completely out of tempo and the melody's stated, and then it comes into time.

So I was really influenced when I heard some of Coltrane's records, especially Crescent (Impulse!, 1964). That was one of my favorites with the old quartet [of Coltrane, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones]. There were a couple of pieces like that on that one with those sorts of rubato melodies. So I think the whole piece has some of that feel. And it's probably the darkest tune on the record, because the melody and the harmony really are dark. They're not very light-sounding at all.

AAJ: Somehow I think this record needs this song.

JA: I think it does, yeah. I think we needed "Round Trip, "Banshee, and this tune. "Wishing Bell has a nice energy to it, too—it's a little more upbeat. But we needed songs that had this kind of feel, and we needed things where we could just stretch out more. I didn't want to make a record of ballads, and the CD does have kind of a ballad feel even with the up-tempo tunes.

But I did need this tune. This was the only one where I was concerned that maybe ECM wouldn't like it as much, because it didn't fit in as much with the groove of other things I've done for them. But Manfred loved it too. And I had wanted to call it "Elvin originally, and someone else had said, "Oh, no, you can't use the title 'Elvin'—that won't sound good on a record. So I gave it some other name, and later in the studio, when we were coming up with titles, Manfred said, "What is this piece called?

Well, I said, "the working title was 'Elvin,' but someone suggested I not use that title. "Why not? he said. "It's a good title, and it sound like Elvin Jones, right, so? So that took care of that.

Sometimes the titles to the songs come later, but sometimes they come right away when the tune is written, and they seem to have a real connection. Like "Elvin or "Wishing Bell —they feel right, and that's the title you give them, because the title was thought of spontaneously, just like the song was.

AAJ: I thought there was a very nylon-stringed quality to your single notes on this one, even though you're playing electric guitar.

John JA: The instrument I used on about four or five tunes is an instrument made by a company called Brian Moore Custom Guitars. They make a guitar that I'm playing now that actually, underneath the bridge, has one of those piezo pickups, which is a sort of pseudo-acoustic pickup. And I think for that tune I had that pickup mixed in a little bit with the normal pickups; I do that sometimes, and that'll give the guitar a little more of a—not necessarily nylon-stringed quality, but you get the sense that you're hearing a more acoustic instrument.

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