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John Abercrombie: All About the Sound

By Published: August 6, 2007

Favorite Groups and the Life of a Musician, Good and Bad

AAJ: Do you have any favorite groups you've played in over your career? Either your own bands, or otherwise?

JA: Oh, yeah, for sure. I've enjoyed playing in all my bands. From the quartet with Richie Beirach, George Mraz and Peter Donald to the trio with Peter Erskine and Marc Johnson to the trio with Adam Nussbaum and Dan Wall to the current band. Those have been my four bands over the course of all these years.


And as for other bands, I enjoyed playing with Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland; we have this cooperative trio which seems to surface every few years and do something—the Gateway trio. That's a lot of fun. That's a real challenge, and you couldn't ask for a better rhythm section that that.

Hmm, what else—things I used to do with [guitarist/pianist] Ralph Towner years ago, although Ralph and I haven't played for quite some time now. Any of the bands I was involved with, with Kenny Wheeler; those were some of my favorite things to do, and I used to play in quite a few bands with him with different rhythm sections—sometimes it would be Dave Holland and Peter Erskine and the English pianist John Taylor. So that was one of my favorite situations to work in.

But there's very few that I don't like. I usually find something good in every situation. Sometimes I find that I have to adjust a little bit more than I'd like to make the music work, and that's why I prefer to play in situations that are either cooperative or my own bands. Because the few times I do go out and play as a sideman, or a glorified sideman, I guess you'd call it—

AAJ: Like a "featuring John Abercrombie thing?

JA: Yeah, a "featuring kind of thing. Sometimes with those, I have to make more adjustments to make the music work, and that can be rough. That can be a little hard. But I generally try to go for what's going to sound best for the music. If I feel I have to play a little more aggressively in a situation—if I can't be quite as subtle as I'd like—then that's what I'll do, because I realize that that will make the overall thing sound better. I'm always trying to listen to the overall sound of whatever band it is, and try to fit in, in a way. And that's the nature of being an accompanist, too—you're trying to fit into a situation and make things sound good, so it's not just about "how good do I sound? It's more about whether the whole thing sounds good. Is it working?

And I think most of the guys I play with kind of approach it in a similar way. We go for the group sound. Of course we want to play well individually—you like to flex your muscles and take nice solos, and get an audience to respond and like you, you know. But the main thing is to try to make the overall thing sound like it's really a band. Even if it's only a duo. Even if you've never played with him before! Because that happens a lot with guys like myself—you'll go to Europe and you'll have a rehearsal for a couple hours with some people, and you may know a couple guys but you don't know the whole band. You may not know anybody! Somebody's just hired you to do something, and all of a sudden, in a two-hour rehearsal, you have to figure out how to make it sound like a band—and maybe go on that night and play a gig.

There's definitely this thing of walking onstage and people thinking, "Wow, here's the band! But they don't know the band has never really played together in front of people. This is it, and it might be this night only, or only two nights. And that takes a lot of listening, and a lot of strength to just try to make it work.

But the interesting thing about playing this kind of music is that you have to be totally relaxed [laughing] while you're doing this. And that almost seems like an oxymoron: How can you be relaxed when you've got all this pressure to try to fit into a band, to have to read music? But you kind of have to do it that way. To really play well, you have to be relaxed. You can't be nervous or you'll screw things up—you might rush tempos, or miss things.

John AbercrombieAAJ: Or you might just get really upset.

JA: Yeah, you get upset or depressed. I mean, I've had gigs where I came off and didn't want to play the next night. And then the next night, everything changed. You know, it's a weird profession. It's a weird thing to be doing sometimes. It does bring up all these issues. And once you get out there and you're traveling around and playing music, you realize that, besides making a living, that's what you're out there for, and if you don't play well—or if you feel you don't play well, because sometimes you think you didn't play well and then people tell you how good it sounded—then you leave the gig feeling kind of down. You think, "Why am I doing this if I didn't enjoy it?

But that's just part of the game. It's part of what goes on, and there's no way around that. You just have to roll with the punches. You win some, and then you don't win some. But overall, it's a situation where it usually comes out positive more than negative.

AAJ: Well, if you couldn't do it, you wouldn't. You wouldn't tour. You'd have to stay home and do something else.

JA: Yeah, and we all go through this. This is a conversation I have with all my friends who are in a similar position. "Well, gee, we're getting to that point in life where maybe we should teach more. The traveling—like Kenny Werner said to me on the phone—"Te romance is gone out of this stuff, isn't it?

Me, I still enjoy going places. But the idea of sitting on a plane, and a couple of trains, and a bus—it's no fun. But when you think of the alternative—one time Larry Coryell and I were on a gig, and I said, "Ah, I'm gettin' really tired of this shit. Maybe I should teach. He said, "What? You want to work for a living? Well, he had a point, because what we do for a living, for the most part, is what we want to do. It's fun, yet it's deep. We get in touch with a lot of things, we're able to develop. I wouldn't trade that for anything. And the only other alternative, for most of us, is to teach. And we all do that to a certain extent. But I wouldn't want to stop doing what I do and just become a full-time teacher because I know that's not my calling. I do enjoy it a lot, and I think I can do it pretty well with good students. It's something I like to do, but if I did it full-time I'd probably go a little crazy. I need to play! And so I'm off on the road in a few days.

Selected Discography

John Abercrombie, The Third Quartet (ECM, 2007)
John Abercrombie, Structures (Chesky, 2006)
Kenny Wheeler, It Takes Two! (CAM Jazz, 2006)
John Abercrombie, Class Trip (ECM, 2004)
Marc Copland/John Abercrombie/Kenny Wheeler, Brand New (Challenge Jazz, 2004)
John Abercrombie, Cat 'n' Mouse (ECM, 2002)
John Abercrombie, Open Land (ECM, 1999)
Charles Lloyd, Voice in the Night (ECM, 1999)
John Abercrombie, Tactics (ECM, 1997)
Gateway, Homecoming (ECM, 1995)
John Abercrombie, November (ECM, 1993)
John Abercrombie, While We're Young (ECM, 1993)
John Abercrombie & Andy LaVerne, Nosmo King (SteepleChase, 1992)
John Abercrombie, Animato (ECM, 1990)
Kenny Wheeler Quintet, The Widow in the Window (ECM, 1990)
John Abercrombie, Marc Johnson, Peter Erskine, John Abercrombie, Marc Johnson, Peter Erskine (ECM, 1989)
John Abercrombie, Getting There (ECM, 1988)
John Abercrombie Trio, Current Events (ECM, 1986)
John Abercrombie, Night (ECM, 1984)
John Abercrombie, John Scofield, Solar (Palo Alto, 1984)
Jan Garbarek, Eventyr (ECM, 1981)
John Abercrombie Quartet, M (ECM, 1981)
John Abercrombie, Abercrombie Quartet (ECM, 1980)
John Abercrombie, Arcade (ECM, 1979)
John Abercrombie, Characters (ECM, 1978)
Gateway, Gateway 2 (ECM, 1978)
Jack DeJohnette, New Directions (ECM, 1978)
Kenny Wheeler, Deer Wan (ECM, 1978)
Jack DeJohnette, Pictures (ECM, 1977)
Collin Walcott, Grazing Dreams (ECM, 1977)
John Abercrombie, Ralph Towner, Sargasso Sea (ECM, 1976)
Gateway, Gateway (ECM, 1975)
John Abercrombie, Timeless (ECM, 1975)
Enrico Rava, The Pilgrim and the Stars (ECM, 1975)

Photo Credits
First Photo: Rogan Coles
Second Photo: Paolo Aquati
Bottom Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernández
Group Photo: Deborah Feingold, courtesy of ECM Records

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