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John Abercrombie: All About the Sound

By Published: August 6, 2007

Its really all about the sound. That, to me, is what all music is. I play from sound.

John AbercrombieJohn Abercrombie is the most important living jazz guitarist.

That caught your attention, didn't it? Well, I'll insist it's true. No guitarist has a stronger recorded legacy than Abercrombie's. He moved to New York City in 1969 and immediately began carving out a reputation as a peerless, fearless player, doing road work with organist Johnny Hammond and recording with the Brecker Brothers' Dreams group. A stint in drummer Billy Cobham's band led to more touring and recording before Abercrombie made his 1974 debut, Timeless, on the ECM label—a label for which he's done a stunning number of classic albums and with which he is still associated.

What's your favorite Abercrombie band? The late 1970s/early 1980s quartet of bassist George Mraz, pianist Richie Beirach and drummer Peter Donald? The lyrical 1980s trio of bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Peter Erskine? The 1990s organ trio with drummer Adam Nussbaum and organist Dan Wall? There's ample recorded documentation to support any preference. Perhaps you're most fond of solo Abercrombie, as documented on Characters (1978), or you might have the greatest love for his collaborations with guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner—Sargasso Sea (1976), say, or the 1982 set, Five Years Later. Yes, I hear you—we mustn't fail to mention Gateway, the collaborative trio of bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and Abercrombie, who last recorded together on 1996's In the Moment. Or you might be most attached to some of Abercrombie's indelible moments as a supporting musician on records like Kenny Wheeler's Deer Wan (1978), Jan Garbarek's Eventyr (1981) or Jack DeJohnette's Pictures1977).

But it's sadly possible that you may never have heard Abercrombie at all. While he's never wanted for work, the 63-year-old guitarist simply hasn't the star profile of fellow six-stringers Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell or John Scofield. He is, however, just as gifted a composer, equally as virtuosic a player, and as sonically recognizable as any of them. Although Abercrombie's tones have changed over the years—part of the fun of poring through his body of work is marveling at the different sounds he explores over the years—his sound and style in any period, with any group, can be identified in only a few notes.

If you haven't yet discovered John Abercrombie—or if you've lost track of his career over the years—there's simply no better place to start than with the recordings of his current quartet, featuring drummer Joey Baron, bassist Marc Johnson and violinist Mark Feldman. The Third Quartet (ECM, 2007) is as close to perfect as a record can get. Abercrombie's never played better than on this disc, and his telepathic interplay with Feldman—or, for that matter, with the entire group—is something to savor.

I spoke with Abercrombie about the new recording, composing on piano versus guitar, the heaven and hell of touring, and a good deal more.

Chapter Index
  1. The Quartet
  2. The Quartet's Development, the Power of Dynamics, and The Third Quartet
  3. "Banshee" and the Manfred Eicher Influence
  4. "Number Nine" and Rubato Balladry
  5. "Wishing Bell"
  6. Comping and Accompaniment
  7. "Round Trip" and "Epilogue"
  8. Elvin
  9. "Fine," Tone and Gear, Some Other Tunes, and Being a Bandleader
  10. Favorite Groups and the Life of a Musician, Good and Bad

The Quartet

All About Jazz: I'm going focus on your new ECM CD with this fantastic quartet of Mark Feldman, Joey Baron and Marc Johnson. The recording's called The Third Quartet, and this is the third CD with this band, the first being Cat 'n' Mouse (ECM, 2002).

I think a lot of people have favorite Abercrombie groups, and if this isn't my very favorite, it's damned close. It's a remarkable band. I think the new record represents more of an even-better version of the first two records, as opposed to any radical rethinking of what the band does. This feels like a band that just understands your tunes and what the other players are going to do. And of course it's got its own sound—I've never heard a band of yours with more freedom—and it's all abut the choices they make that fill up the relatively simple structures of your compositions. At the same time, the music's always elegant, and so true to those compositions. You don't get the idea anyone was told what to play, but with all the freedom they have, they always know where to be, what to do, true to the sound and the form. How'd this band come together, what does this band do, and how is it changing with each recording and each gig?

JohnJohn Abercrombie: I did a record, oh, seven or eight years ago. It was an album called Open Land [ECM, 1999], which had what was, at that time, my organ trio with special guests. It was the last incarnation of the organ band [of organist Dan Wall and drummer Adam Nussbaum] on ECM, and so we had [trumpeter] Kenny Wheeler, [saxophonist] Joe Lovano, and Mark Feldman on violin. I think it was from that recording that I realized how good Mark was and how much I wanted to do something with him—but I definitely wanted to break away from the organ thing because I found that the violin and organ, while interesting, was not what I was looking for. I was looking for something more acoustic-sounding.

So the first person I called to play bass was Marc Johnson, because he's my favorite all-time bassist. I just love, love the way he plays. For my kind of playing, he's the right guy, because he leaves so much space. Plus he gets a beautiful sound; he can solo on everything from really open music to some of my compositions, which can get pretty heady harmonically. And he's played tons of standard tunes with [pianist] Bill Evans, and the interplay he had with Bill Evans transfers to whoever he plays with. And that was one of my heroes: Bill Evans and his trios.

The Joey Baron factor came about—I've mentioned this in a couple of interviews—by default, actually, because the original drummer I had scheduled for that first recording, when I decided to do it, was Billy Hart. And Billy called me literally two weeks before the record date to say that he was going on tour and couldn't do it. So I had a decision to make: Either cancel the record or find someone else. I contacted my other drummer colleague, Adam Nussbaum, and said, "Who would you recommend? I didn't want to use Adam, because we'd already done four albums together.

So he sent me what he calls his "drum list. He just e-mailed me this list of drummers, and I scrolled through the whole thing, and went back to the one at the top: Joey Baron. Well, I knew Joey from years ago, because he substituted in my first band, the one I had with [pianist] Richie Beirach and [bassist] George Mraz. It was a quartet with Peter Donald playing drums, and I remembered that when Peter couldn't play with us, Joey came and played a couple gigs out in California.

Then I played with Joey when he moved back to New York; he'd come by my loft, and we'd play with just guitar and drums, or sometimes Marc Johnson would come by as well. We'd just go crazy and play everything from standards, to free tunes, to whatever we wanted to do. And I knew what Joey had been up to in recent years, playing with John Zorn and on freer things, but I knew that he could play straight-ahead, and I thought, "Well, this could be a good opportunity to try something different. So I just gave Joey a call. He was totally into it.

And I had no idea how it would work out. We had one rehearsal. I had the tunes for the Cat 'n' Mouse record and we rehearsed them for maybe three hours maximum, and everything sounded just great. So of course, I relaxed a lot and was really positive about the date.


And that's how it came together—it was just a combination of elements. A bassist that I knew I always wanted to play with; Mark Feldman, who'd inspired me with his playing on the Open Land record; and Joey Baron, who came about kind of by default—which was kind of a blessing in disguise, because I think he's the perfect drummer for the band. Probably more perfect than Billy would have been in this context, because he's just so open. He's just so completely there in the moment that you can do anything. He can make something from nothing more than any drummer that I've ever played with, except maybe [Jack] DeJohnette. Plus, he's one of the few drummers whose drum solos I can listen to.

AAJ: That's very funny.

JA: Well, it's true! I get interested in his solos. I really stop and listen. I mean, I listen to every drummer, but more so with Joey; I'm really tuned-in to what he's doing because he makes such statements when he takes solos. It's not just a bunch of drum-istic things. He really tells a little story when he takes a solo.

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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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"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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"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.


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.


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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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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"Fine," Tone and Gear, Some Other Tunes, and Being a Bandleader

AAJ: The last song on the record I'll mention is, well, the last song on the record: "Fine, a sort of farewell that consists of a double-tracked acoustic you. You're playing a sort of duet with yourself. It's a perfect ending for the CD, but very different from the rest of the record at the same time—it could almost be from a different album.

AAJ: I know. Totally. It was the only one I wasn't sure whether or not we should use. It was the end of the day, and I had to make a decision: do I try to teach this song to the band? Do I play it just with the violin? Or just with Marc Johnson? I had different options I was trying to think about. And I had my acoustic guitar, so I said, "Okay, the record date's done. I'm just going to do this as an acoustic guitar overdub. I'll just give it one or two passes—and if I like it, we'll just keep it and when we mix the record, I'll make the decision then whether or not to put it on the record.

And Manfred really liked it, and thought it should be closer for the record. He thought it was okay that it was totally different and [laughing] almost seemed to have nothing to do with the record. And the more I listen to it, the more I like it. The only thing that I thought was a little strange about it was the way they separated the two acoustic guitars. If I listen on headphones, the accompaniment guitar is way on the left, and the other is on the right.

AAJ: Oh, yeah, the two are totally separated.

JA: Yeah, it's totally panned to the left and right. That was the only thing on this entire CD that, in retrospect, I thought could have been done a little differently. When I listened to it in my car, though, it sounded really good to me. It's just on headphones that I can really hear the separation. But that's one little quibble I might have with a CD that I really like.

l:r: John Abercrombie, Mark Feldman, Joey Baron, Marc Johnson

But I look at that tune as just a little statement. One time through the melody, a couple of improvised choruses, and the melody going out again. It's very much like the CD I did many, many years ago called Characters (ECM, 1978), which had a lot of acoustic guitar, and a lot of overdubs, because it was just me. My wife thinks this one sounds like something from that CD.

AAJ: Me too, and it made me think that it's time for another John Abercrombie solo record.

JA: Maybe so. And it doesn't sound too strange on this record to me, because I realize that, again, this is another one of those things I like to do. And I haven't done it for years, so it is kind of a throwback to Characters. It has some of that vibe, so it probably won't seem that unusual to people who follow my stuff. Maybe it seems unusual as the last tune on the record, but why not?

AAJ: Hey, there is nowhere else to put the song but at the end.

JA: No, it has to be at the end. It would just stick out like a sore thumb at the middle. But at the end, it's another little epilogue.

AAJ: I think I would always know an Abercrombie record if someone played one I hadn't heard to me. That said, you don't make recordings where it's obviously your band every second—and we know those kinds of records where, even if you didn't know who it was, you'd still know it was the drummer's session, or the saxophonist's. Mark Feldman has as much prominence as you as the person making the melodic statements on this new record, and you could make the same case for a lot of your records—you're not that concerned with showing that you're the leader, that you're the boss, are you?

JohnJA: No. I've never been interested in that. I like to have a band because I like to write music for a band. I like to try different things. I like to have a certain amount of control, because it's the only time I'm going to be in that kind of position where I can actually be a sort of leader.

But all I really want to do is be a member of a band that plays more of my music and plays these things that I can really resonate with and really connect to. But I love it when people just take charge. I love it when Feldman just jumps in and maybe takes the first solo and, as we used to say, just "Bogarts me. He'll just jump in there and start to play, and I'm like, "Yeah, go ahead, do it! If he does it, he obviously feels it—and then he should do it.

And that's kind of what this whole CD is about. Of the other two tunes you didn't mention, just in terms of how the titles came up—one is called "Vingt Six, which is a little classical-sounding piece that was written a day before the date. It's called that just because it's 26 measures long. No other reason for the title whatsoever. And the one called "Tres is called that because it's a waltz and has a Spanish flavor.

AAJ: "Vingt Six seems quite composed but for the solos. There's a self-contained quality to this one I like; when it's over in four minutes or so, it feels like, "Okay, that's all there is to say.

JA: Yeah. Again, that's not the kind of piece you would stretch out or play a lot on. Even live, you might play a little longer on a solo, take longer choruses on it, but it's not about that. It's just a little chamber piece, and it doesn't really work for playing a lot of choruses on.

AAJ: It's not a blowin' tune?

JA: Not a blowing tune. And the same could kind of be said for "Tres. Both songs have very strict forms and a lot of chords. "Tres is actually very complicated—it has an odd form and it moves all over the place. And, again, it's not a tune you'd probably play a lot of choruses on. It's not a blowing tune in that sense, but it is more so than "Vingt Six. It lends itself a little more to stretching out a bit. Just a bit, though—that's about it.

AAJ: Like I just said, I think I would always know an Abercrombie record. But your tone continues to changes over the years. I was listening to the first Gateway record [Gateway, ECM, 1975] and to While We're Young (ECM, 1992], just to mention two, and the tones of your guitars were very different from each other—and certainly different from your sound in this current quartet. And while it might be obvious that a guitarist's tone would change over thirty years, that often isn't the case. But it seems like you are always interested in a different sound.

JA: Yeah. Now, a lot of what you mentioned is the way you play, but it's also literally different instruments. I remember the first Gateway record was recorded exclusively on a funny old Gibson guitar—I think it was called a Melody Maker or something. It was a really cheap, beat-up guitar, which nowadays would probably go for quite a few shekels, but in those days was a very cheap guitar. It was just one of the guitars I had, but I took it on the road with me and it had a little more abrasive tone to it. It wasn't a sweet tone; that guitar had a little harshness to it, and it really worked well with electronic effects. Like with distortion—I think that's where it sounded the best.

And also, I was a lot younger. That's like '76, and my whole approach to playing was different. I played with a pick in those days, not with my fingers as much, and it was more aggressive and a little more pyrotechnical. It's just where I was at, at the time. That record was also recorded in a studio in Germany which had a very particular sound, and the guitar was probably recorded through a Fender amplifier that was in the studio at the time. I didn't carry my own amps. I still don't, but I think my sound has changed over the years.

While We're Young (ECM, 1993) was a recording I made with a sort of Fender-style guitar I was playing a lot at the time, and I also had a solid-body Ibanez guitar, which was more like a Les Paul. So I had those two instruments on that record. Oh, I also had one of these Chet Atkins solid-body steel-string guitars, which appears on one or two tunes.

So I had a different variety of guitars, and a little stereo setup that I would bring to the studios with me, and try to take with me on the road if I could. Usually I couldn't because it was too much stuff to shlep around.

So a lot of time the equipment changes, the guitar changes, the studio changes. And you change. So everything's kind of changing. And I've always been interested in different sounds. The new record has four or five different instruments on it. On Class Trip, I used basically one guitar, and it was the same on Cat 'n' Mouse, except on that one, I used an acoustic on one tune. But those CDs were basically recorded with one guitar, which was a Brian Moore Custom guitar—kind of their version of a Les Paul.

But for the most current record, I had an archtop guitar which was made in California by a guy named Jim Mapson. I used that for the tune "Number 9. I used a Roger Sadowsky archtop for "Tres and "Vingt Six, and maybe one other—I can't remember which one. I used an old Les Paul that I had in the house for a tune called "Bred. I don't know what you'd call that tune. It's what we'd call an eighth-note tune; it has an even eighth-note feel as opposed to a jazz feel or a waltz. It's more even. And on most of the other tracks, I used this Brian Moore guitar. Four or five of them. And the final cut with the acoustic guitar used a Taylor acoustic that I've been playing for the last few years. I just brought it to the studio because if I'm recording in New York now, I try to bring a few instruments. I won't necessarily use them, but I want to have the option.

AAJ: It's better to have them.

JA: It's better to have them. It's good to have different colors on a CD. So you can see that all these things have changed on different recordings. Instruments, conceptions, studios, players.

AAJ: What kind of gear do you take on the road? One or two guitars? Do you bring an amp or backline one?

JohnJA: I always backline. You can't bring amps on the road anymore. You can barely even get your guitar on the plane these days. Lately I just take this Brian Moore guitar and a little box with some effects. The main effect I use, and I've been using it for about twenty years, is little stereo effects processor made by the Boss company, which is a subdivision of Roland, called the SE-50. It's just a little half-rack unit that has multi-effects—reverb, delay, chorus and a lot of really useless stuff that I don't use like distortion and compression. I just generally use it for the reverb and the delay and sometimes maybe a very little bit of chorusing. That's changed over the years. I used to use a lot more of that effect. During the eighties, I was using more chorus; I was addicted to it. As I get older, I find that that sounds like too much to me. My sound is getting a little more pure over the years—less effected, more direct.

AAJ: Do you always backline the same kind of amp?

JA: I try to get the same kind of amps. I usually go for these Roland JC-120s, mostly because I've gotten used to them so I know what they do. They basically have volume, bass, treble, middle, and that's it. It's very easy; I don't have to think about them or need a diagram to figure out how to program them. It's a basic guitar amp.

I also like a MESA/Boogie amp called the Mark III. Again, it's a very simple, straightforward amp. I play in stereo, so I usually like to use one of each kind if I can, because I find that using different amps sometimes creates this interesting sound, and I prefer that to using two amps at the same time that are the same. If one is different, you really get a sense that you're playing in stereo. You can really feel it more.

So I try to backline those amps if I can get them, but a lot of times I'm stuck with things I don't like. Especially when you're traveling through Europe, you can't always get exactly what you want. Especially if you're in a place like Slovenia, say—you're going to have to make do with what you can get.

The other things I take with me are a small Boss EQ pedal, just a little floor pedal that's a graphic EQ with ten or twelve bands, and some sort of distortion pedal. I've been using this distortion pedal for the last few years that's made in California by a company called Fulltone. They make a pedal called the Full-Drive, which is basically an overdrive pedal that's got a couple of stages of distortion you can use. I find it's one of the more natural-sounding ones; I just like the sound. And then I carry a volume pedal.

So I plug the guitar into the EQ, I go from that into distortion, I go from that into a volume pedal, and then I go out into my little multi-effects unit. From there, into the amps. And that's it, and all that goes into a really small attaché case. So I can go on the road with just the guitar, the attaché case and a small suitcase. Then I'm pretty mobile, and I can generally dial in my sound, or a sound that's pleasing, on almost any amp. But occasionally, you run into something that just doesn't work, and you have to make do with it, because you can't not play the gig.

And that's a big issue, I think, for a lot of people. When you go on the road, you always hear musicians complaining that the sound wasn't good. And that can be for many reasons. It could be that the sound of the room was bad. If you play in a gymnasium, or a room that's all glass, or something like that, you know you're up against a really rough acoustic room. So you have to just try maybe softer than you normally would—your dynamic range has to change a little bit.

And that's a nice thing about this band: It's really adaptable. We can really play soft if we have to. And we like to play soft, but if need be, that can really work to our advantage. We can do a sound check and realize that the room is going to be very echoey or very live, so we'll accommodate that by playing softer, because the louder you play in a room like that, the more it gets out of control.

And sometimes the sound is just bad and there's nothing you can do about it. You wind up fighting it a little bit, and you end up really mad by the end of the gig, and you're just complaining. But the next night you play in a place where the acoustics are fantastic, so you realize that so much of that has to do with just the room you play in. You just have to try to adjust the best you can. I was talking to DeJohnette years ago, and I asked him, "How do you deal with this? He said, "Man, I just play the room.

And that's it! It's just like being Rodney Dangerfield—you have to go out and play to the room and kind of tailor the way you're going to do your thing according to what you hear. It's really all about the sound. That, to me, is what all music is. I play from sound. I play from knowledge, of course, of what I'm doing on the guitar, and what I know about harmony, and theory, and blah-blah-blah. But basically, when you get right down to it, it's just sound.

And if things sound good, you're able to play better. If you're comfortable with the sound and the amplifiers and the way the band sounds, you can really get a band sound. Sometimes you'll play in a place where it's harder to get that blend of a sound, a blend of a band, because the acoustics don't allow you to do that. With this band, we try to use very little p.a. or monitoring if we can—Joey Baron doesn't use a monitor, Marc Johnson doesn't either. Mark Feldman needs a monitor because that's where his sound comes from—he plays through a microphone into a monitor. And I'll usually have a little monitor with some violin in the monitor, so I can hear Mark, because Mark stands on the other side of the stage from me when we play live. The bass and drums are more in the middle, I stand on one side, and Mark's on the other.


That works best, I think, to have the instruments a little separated—but we try to set up as close as possible so that we don't have to use too much of the monitor. We always tell the soundman. "Once you get a sound that you like, I don't want to see your fingers touch the faders on your mixer. Don't even go near them—I don't want you to change anything. If I play soft, it means I want to play soft. Don't turn me up. Because guys do this all the time: "Gee, the guitar's soft. I guess I'd better turn it up! They don't realize you want it to be soft at that point.

So a bad sound guy can just ruin the dynamics of a performance, and I can't afford to bring a sound guy with me for everything, so you're basically at the mercy of these different people in these different towns. But usually, it works out okay. I find if you just explain to people what it is you want, you'll generally be okay.

Of course, the sound can change drastically from the time you set up and do a little sound check and when you come back and do the gig because you have an audience.

AAJ: Oh, right. Bodies.

JA: Bodies take up some of the sound. They dry things up. Which for me is better. I like that. So I like a full house for many reasons! I like to see a full house; I want the promoter or the club owner to do well. I want to have a good relationship with them. And it helps me with the sound.

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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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