John Abercrombie: All About the Sound


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It's really all about the sound. That, to me, is what all music is. I play from sound.
John 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.

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?

John 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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