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John Abercrombie: All About the Sound


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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.

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.

"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.

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?

JA: 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?

JA: 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.

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.

AAJ: 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.

Photo credit: Nedici Dragoslav



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