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John Abercrombie: Extending the Tradition

John Kelman By

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I like free playing that has some relationship to a melody...I think having a reference point when you're playing this kind of music is very important. —John Abercrombie
Guitarist John Abercrombie is arguably the guitarist of his generation who pushes the boundaries of improvised music while still relating, most directly, to the jazz tradition. While others dabble with electronica, jam band sensibilities, world music and Americana, Abercrombie, no matter how forward-reaching his music has become, is always first and foremost a jazz guitarist. Even with the more free-thinking chamber work of his current quartet, there is a clear tie with tradition that separates him from his peers.

"I guess it more or less comes from the idea that, with a lot of my songs, I'm definitely writing harmonic music," explains Abercrombie. "I don't write tunes that are very out sounding; I tend to write songs with harmonies. That's coming from the tradition of jazz; it's coming from playing standard tunes. I think that's where my root is, and a lot of people don't know that. If there's anything I practice and work towards it's that kind of concept; trying to negotiate how to improvise over more standard song forms. So when I write my own tunes I see them as an extension of standard songs in a way; they're harmonic, they have melodies. They're not trying to forge particularly new ground, although my harmonies and forms are different than standard forms—they have a lot of odd bar lengths and unusual harmonies. But the idea is to play somewhat in the jazz tradition, but extended.

"I was very influenced, back when I met people like Ralph Towner and Richie Beirach," continues Abercrombie, "and Wayne Shorter was writing all his beautiful songs with Miles. I got very influenced by that kind of harmony and that kind of improvising. So I've always been trying to keep certain things in sight. That's what my goal is, to become a better jazz musician, even though it may not sound that way at times."

Abercrombie has also strived to expand the limits of the instrument, through use of guitar synthesizers in the '80s and, on a more frequent basis, through altering the sound of his instrument with the use of effects. "I think that even though I don't still play the synthesizer," says Abercrombie, "that using certain effects and trying to get a different sound out of the guitar—not always playing it with a traditional sound—I think that's where I really stop sounding like jazz guitar; and that's intentional. If I'm using, for example, a little distorted sound, then I'm trying to evoke some kind of mood. I find that the sound is very important to me in terms of how I express myself. So if I'm getting a slightly altered sound on the guitar that will make me write and hear and play differently than I would if I were playing "Stella by Starlight" or some other standard. So the approach will be different, and that's where I branch off and go way from the tradition of jazz; and sometimes it just doesn't sound as much like a guitar."

Over a thirty-year period, Abercrombie's growth as a leader has been well-documented through his association with Manfred Eicher's ECM label. But while there have been numerous side projects, Abercrombie has only worked with four groups for any length of time. A good introduction to his work for the label can be found on his recently release, :rarum XIV: Selected Recordings , which documents his growth as a leader, as well as in some musical relationships that continue to this day.

First Quartet

His first quartet, with pianist Richie Beirach, bassist George Mraz and drummer Peter Donald, released three albums on ECM—Arcade , Quartet , and M , and are the only recordings of Abercrombie as a leader that have yet to be reissued on CD. "I never really understood why ECM didn't release those disks," Abercrombie says. "I did speak to Manfred one time about it, and he said that eventually everything will come out on CD. But that's why I chose a tune from that period to include on the :rarum disk; I really wanted that period represented.

"It was probably the most influential group," Abercrombie explains. "It was my first group as a leader, so it was extremely important for me to have that band, for many reasons. It was, of course, a good band, but it was also my first opportunity to really be a leader and it was my first opportunity to write consistently for the same group of musicians. The fact that Richie, George and I all lived in New York; Richie and I would get together several times a week at his little apartment and we'd just play through songs. It was a real kind of workshop; without that band I wouldn't have had other bands, it was the starting point and it was, I think, a good one.

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