John Abercrombie: Extending the Tradition

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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.

"It was an opportunity to write and play more traditional types of song form," continues Abercrombie. "That band never really delved much into playing what we would call free jazz, we pretty much played songs. And we played standards at gigs—we didn't record them, but we included them in our repertoire for concerts. I think that was a real opportunity to just go completely into playing on form and songs, because I had come out of playing with Billy Cobham and Jack DeJohnette. I really longed to play harmony; being a guitarist harmony is a real natural choice, so I think that band was really important, from that aspect."

One of Abercrombie's lasting memories about the first quartet was one of their recording sessions for ECM. "I remember doing one session, and we were listening to a playback and Manfred was saying, "How do you like that?" I was saying, "That seems fine, I kind of like it." Then George said," I can live with that." And then there was a silence and George came back with, "You know, I think I have to buy myself a bigger house soon," and I said, "Why would you need a bigger place to live?" and he said, "Because of all the shit I have to live with, I have no room for myself anymore."

"I just thought that it was a funny moment," continues Abercrombie, "but it was also really kind of to the point. You're always saying, "Well, I can live with it." And you wind up living with a lot of stuff that you really don't like that much, but you just live with it anyway. With every recording you make, it's out there and it's documented, so you just kind of have to live with it; you have to live with how you play and how you are, and I think that was kind of an insightful thing to say. But of course when he said it everyone just cracked up because it was so funny, and George is a very funny guy."

Marc Johnson and Peter Erskine

Abercrombie's first group lasted only four years; his second group, a trio with bassist Marc Johnson and Peter Erskine, lasted longer—over seven years. "The second band was an opportunity to try a lot of things," says Abercrombie. "It was a guitar trio, which was something I always liked to play in, to play traditional music. But it also gave me the opportunity to play around with this beast of a thing called the synthesizer; I fooled around with it for almost the entire period. A lot of people didn't like it, but that's where I was at the time. Marc, having played with Bill Evans, gave me a strong connection to that music, which I loved. Then Peter brought in the whole Weather Report element. Sometimes we would improvise these sorts of rock pieces that would sound better than anything I could write. And so I had this lyrical bassist and lyrical drummer who were also capable of playing really loud and strong, really bringing the fusion element to the music if we wanted it. The original quartet couldn't do that, because we had an acoustic piano. I think the reason to switch up was that desire to play louder, more open kind of music, not having a keyboard dictating where I could go."

Dan Wall and Adam Nussbaum

Abercrombie's third group, another trio, also lasted about seven years, but represented a significant change over the group with Johnson and Erskine. Playing with organist Dan Wall and drummer Adam Nussbaum, the ensemble was rooted in the organ trio tradition, but took a more modern slant. "The trio with Adam and Dan came about because I've always loved playing with organ," explains Abercrombie. "Adam and I actually had a record date with another organist, Jeff Palmer, a really good organ player, but very abstract. I remember we did a couple of projects with him, and I was really taken with that combination, this guitar, organ and drums combination, but with a more modern approach. And so we got together with Dan Wall one time, and it was just obvious from the beginning that we wanted to do this. I think the desire to do it was to get back to the sound of the organ, which is something I've used on Timeless and another CD called Night ; plus my roots go back to organ trio playing, from playing with a guy named Johnny Hammond Smith back in the late '60s, which was my first real jazz gig.

"Also, I'd always wanted to play with Adam," continues Abercrombie, "because he's one of the most comfortable drummers in the world to play with, he has such a great wide-open feel. You can play anything with him and it all works because he's just so adaptable, and he swings so hard, and I really wanted somebody who had a little more of that kind of feel on drums. Erskine had a different feel; Adam is a little more related to Elvin Jones and that kind of drumming, and I was having a really strong pull in that direction."

Enrico Rava

In and around his various groups, Abercrombie also guested on many recordings for ECM. One of the most memorable of the '70s was with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava's group, which also featured bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen. They recorded two albums for the label, The Plot and, most notably, The Pilgrim and the Stars , which is considered one of the label's classic recordings. "That particular quartet," says Abercrombie," was one of my favorite groups to play with during that period, because it was a wide open experience; playing very freely, but we were playing song forms and we were also playing stuff that didn't have any form. The rhythm section was so adaptable and musical; Palle is just an amazing joy to play with; the same with Christensen. And playing Enrico's little tunes, they just allowed you to play very openly even though you were playing over song forms; I can't describe it, but they didn't lock you in as much, even though a lot of them had harmonies and specific forms. They felt very open and the approach the musicians took to playing them was very open.

"The one thing I've noticed about a lot of us musicians," Abercrombie continues, "is that as we get older we tend to sound a little more traditional. I know Enrico definitely has; I played with him a couple of years ago, and I said, "Man, that really sounded like a solo from Miles in the '50s, and he said, 'Well, that's my shit now man, that's what I play.' And it's interesting, even though the music keeps changing my thinking is along the same lines. It's what I practice, it's what I hear. I'm going back more and more to what I started playing jazz for, but still trying to keep an ear open to things being different."

Ralph Towner

Over the years Abercrombie has forged a number of long-standing and extremely important musical relationships. One of the most important has been with guitarist/pianist/composer Ralph Towner, with whom John has worked in a duet setting over the years, recording two albums, Sargasso Sea and Five Years Later , the latter another case of an ECM recording that is sadly in need of reissue on CD. "The relationship with Ralph is very important to me," explains Abercrombie, "although we haven't done anything for quite a while. I hope we do at some point, but with Ralph now living in Italy, I don't get to see him very often.

"Before we played music," continues Abercrombie, "we became really good friends; we used to hang out a lot together. I met him in Boston when he was playing with Astrud Gilberto. I remember introducing myself and going out for dinner one night, and we immediately connected as friends. We didn't play music until I moved to New York. He was a powerful influence on me as a player and also as a composer. He's one of my favorite musicians, period, but his songs really attracted me and that influenced how I started to write songs. Also playing in a duo guitar set-up, I think that was the first time I'd ever done something like that and so that was a challenge also. I learned a lot by playing with Ralph, about how to function in that situation, because he was a great accompanist as well as a soloist; when I had to accompany Ralph, sometimes it would fall short; so I had to learn ways to accompany him so that he would feel comfortable; it really improved my guitar playing tremendously. I think that also got me into playing with my fingers a bit, because if I was playing an acoustic guitar or even the electric, I would find that if I played with my fingers when I accompanied him I could approximate more of what he does, and try to fill out the sound more and create more for him to play off of; I think that was a tremendous influence."


Another relationship that has lasted nearly thirty years is his cooperative group with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, Gateway. "Gateway was one of my first experiences playing open, free jazz," Abercrombie says. "I can't even describe what it felt like; it was like a kid being let loose in a candy store, and just being told, "You can have anything you want." They kind of dragged me along into the music, because it was new for me, and I hadn't played it, and from the get-go they were encouraging me. Dave and I played together one afternoon and he said, 'You have a natural sense for playing this kind of music.' Then we got together with Jack; actually we recorded it, we made a cassette in Jack's basement, a really low-fidelity recording.

"But I remember riding in a car with Manfred, on the way to a recording date," Abercrombie continues, "and he asked me what was new, so I said, '"Well, I just got together with Jack and Dave and we played a few tunes." He asked to hear it, so I stuck it in the cassette machine in the car, and after about two minutes he said, "Oh, we should really record this trio, it's great." We weren't even thinking about recording it, so there's a case of Manfred's insight coming and taking charge and actually causing the group to form."

Abercrombie has high praise for Manfred Eicher's contributions, in terms of putting together groups of musicians and the recording process. "Manfred is totally unique," Abercrombie says. "He always seems to find some part of your playing or some part of a composition that you don't hear, and he's able to draw out other elements that I think maybe an American producer, or one who doesn't have his aesthetic, would not even hear; they would probably say, 'Gee, that sounded like a good solo, let's do another.' They'd be thinking more in terms of traditional jazz and that's another way I separate from traditional jazz guitar playing is through my association with ECM and Manfred; having played with many European musicians and having Manfred as a producer. He's the one that got me more into playing with a volume pedal, for example. He always thought that when I used the volume pedal I sounded kind of like a violin, so he used to make all these references to Isaak Stern, and he'd say, 'Oh John, give me some more Isaak.' And that was something I probably would not have thought of on my own, or I wouldn't have tried to develop it, but at that point, when we were recording some of those records, he really drew me into a way of playing that opened up my ears to making the guitar sound not so much like a guitar."

With Gateway being Abercrombie's first real experience playing in a free context, it was one that would ultimately inform his later evolution. "As far as playing that kind of music I don't think there's a better rhythm section on the planet to play it with. They're so quick; they can turn on a dime. We can play things where we sound like we're playing in a tempo and we're really not, just playing off each other there's no specific tempo being set down, but all these tempos would be implied. That's what I learned a lot, playing with Gateway, to play this kind of more open music, and make it sound logical. I never liked a lot of free jazz because it sounded too random to me, so the idea was to play music that had no form and make it sound like you were playing on a form. That also influenced how I would play traditional music; by playing freely I would come back and play a standard song and my approach would start to free up because I had been playing with them. So I've found a lot of times the freer, open playing feeds the more traditional playing; and with the more traditional playing you can take all the elements that you practice in traditional song form playing and apply them to free playing too. So you get this kind of interesting mix; I'm always trying to make things sound like they make sense.

"And Dave is very good at writing what Jack DeJohnette would call, 'Dave's little cups of tea,'" concludes Abercrombie. "They're just these little melodies with a bass line, and when you hear them they make a complete composition, even though when you improvise on them you don't improvise over a chord pattern; you improvise on the spirit of the song."

Kenny Wheeler

The other long-standing relationship that has helped shape Abercrombie has been with trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler. "I first met Kenny around the time we did this record called Deer Wan ," says Abercrombie, "and I think what attracted me to Kenny and playing his music was his music; it was just instantaneous. When I heard his songs they made sense to me somehow; even though I had trouble playing them and I couldn't always negotiate all the harmonies the way I would have liked to. But there was something about them that just made an immediate connection to me. And his playing; I remember talking with Kenny about this because when I first heard him play he reminded me so much, in a way, of Booker Little. Talking with Kenny one time, I found that Booker Little was one of his biggest influences.

"And Little was a tremendous influence on me, even though I don't talk about him a lot," continues Abercrombie. "I used to have some of those records he did with Max Roach, and I just loved his playing and his writing so much. He's one of those guys who was an influence on me even though he played another instrument and I never listened to him a lot; it's just that there was something about him that grabbed me, there was an emotional impact, and I think that's where a lot of the reason for playing comes from. It's emotional; you get that chill up your spine when you hear something; when you hear Bill Evans play a chord or you hear Miles phrase a melody, it's an emotional response, and I think that's the way it should be, it should be emotional."

Current Quartet and Free Playing

With Abercrombie's final recording of the Wall/Nussbaum trio, '99's Open Land, he made a move towards a freer direction that would be further developed with his current quartet, consisting of violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron. "Open Land doesn't have anything that's totally improvised," explains Abercrombie, "there are at least themes. Even the tune "Open Land" is a theme that was inspired by listening to this Hungarian composer who wrote a lot of compositions based around folk music, and when I heard it I really related to it. So "Open Land," the piece, is inspired by listening to that composer. But it's just a set-up, it's just a theme and you can use parts of the theme or not when you're improvising. I like free playing that has some relationship to a melody; very much the way Ornette Coleman used to write all those wonderful songs and then they would play without chords on a lot of them; but they still had these great melodies to draw you in and act as a reference point; I think having a reference point when you're playing this kind of music is very important.

"I think that's one of the ways I look at free playing," continues Abercrombie. "With the current quartet, on the first CD we did, Cat 'n' Mouse , there are two pieces that are just totally improvised, and I think with a band like this the level of communication is so strong and Feldman has such a powerful influence on the music; the way he improvised because he's used to playing a lot of very free music without any form whatsoever, and just the nature of the violin playing this way, the way Marc Johnson and Joey play, we create chamber music. Years ago, I did some things that were completely free, but not so much in recent years; so this band is something of a departure. Sometimes we'll go on stage and we'll just make up something, we'll make up the first piece and work our way into a composition.

"The way that Oregon would start off a set with a free improvisation influenced me a lot," Abercrombie continues. "They would create these little miniatures; it was almost like you were listening to a Stravinsky piece or something. And I said to myself, that when I improvise freely, that's the way I'd like to improvise; more in that direction than free jazz, because it sounds more compositional; I think the element of composition is a very important aspect in playing freely, and I want something to have this feeling like it's composed, and not just random noise. I want it to feel like there's some intelligence behind it, and some thought process."

Putting the New Quartet Together

In forming the current quartet, Abercrombie's first priority was to continue the relationship begun with Mark Feldman, who guested on Open Land. "I knew I wanted to play with Feldman," explains Abercrombie, "because from Open Land it felt like a natural development. Marc Johnson came into it because he's my favorite bassist, and I wanted to reconnect with him if he was interested. Joey Baron actually came about by default. I never told Joey this, but the original drummer I had planned for this project was Billy Hart, because Billy and I had been playing with Charles Lloyd, and I just enjoyed Billy's playing so much; I think he's one of the true masters, and I wanted to include him. Then he called, I think it was a few weeks before the recording date, and he said he had this gig with Pat Martino out in California, and he had to take it; he needed the money. And so I was left with this record date fixed with all these people and I needed a drummer.

"So I got a drum list from Adam Nussbaum," continues Abercrombie, "I said, 'Can you email me a list of all the drummers you have?' So he sent me this list and one of the first names on the list was Joey Baron, and as soon as I saw his name I knew I had to call him. So we spoke, and he said, Yeah, I can make the date,' but I had no idea where it was going to go. When I was living in New York I had a loft and sometimes Joey would bring his drums by and we'd just play duo, or we'd play with Marc Johnson; so we already had a little connection. We would do everything from playing standards to my tunes to completely free; or sometimes we would just throw out a name, like Aretha Franklin, and we would try to play something that reminded us of Aretha. So I knew Joey had the imagination, and I also knew he could play very inside and traditional, because he subbed for Peter Donald one night, years ago, with my first quartet. I knew Joey could play pretty much anything, but still I didn't know what to expect.

"And I was really blown away," concludes Abercrombie. "I think of all the drummers that I've worked with, Joey is the most flexible, believe it or not. I think he's the best free drummer, playing just improvised music, that I've ever played with because he has the ability to concentrate on small ideas and let them develop. And I find that if everyone in the band is in tune with that, then you can play this sort of improvised collective music and have it make sense; but if people don't have the concentration, then the music will just fall short because you don't have enough of a form to fall back on. He's one of the best musicians I've ever played with; I can't say enough about playing with him, he can do anything he wants."


The material that Abercrombie has written for this group ranges from bare sketches to more fully composed material. "Some of the tunes are very specific," Abercrombie says, "others might just be a line, or a few lines. There's a piece on Cat 'n' Mouse called "Convolution," which is just a series of three independent lines. We play one line, and then we improvise; then we play the second line and improvise; then we go back and forth between these two lines, which are completely out of tempo, and then we play the third line, which dictates the tempo. So there's a form to the improvisation, but there are no chords; there's no particular structure but there is an overall approach. A lot of times I bring in pieces like that, and then, other times, I write my waltzes. As a matter of fact I was going to call the new record Three and More , because almost every tune on it is either a waltz or a triple meter kind of tune, but ultimately I ended up calling it Class Trip , which I think is catchier."

Abercrombie has always had a predilection for 3/4 time, so the emphasis on triple meter on the new record comes as no surprise. "It's always felt very natural to me," explains Abercrombie. "I don't know why, I could make a joke and say I never learned to count to four; but I think what it is about waltzes is that when I first started playing them I realized I felt a lot of rhythmic freedom; I could impose 4/4, I could play four against three. When you approach a waltz that way it opens the waltz up; and then you start to realize that no matter what tempo you're playing in, or what the rhythm is, there are a lot of subdivisions and layers of rhythm that you can superimpose. And I found it was easier for me to superimpose 4/4 over3/4 than the other way around; I always felt more natural playing the four against three. That just drew me into waltzes somehow; Bill Evans has recorded a lot of waltzes, you know, "Waltz for Debby," "Alice in Wonderland," all these tunes that had a strong emotional impact on me when I was younger. So I think the combination of that plus just the freedom I felt in a waltz; not everybody feels that way, I have some students that have said they always had a hard time playing in three; but for me it came very naturally."

Class Trip , while continuing the freedom-with-inner-logic approach of Cat 'n' Mouse , is actually more structured, with a stronger sense of form. But a lot of how the pieces develop has to do with the interplay and interpretation of the ensemble. "Usually I bring in a piece, put it in front of everybody and we talk about it," Abercrombie says. "I usually have some kind of concept, I say, 'We're going to play this line and then I think we should improvise freely, or improvise at a tempo,' and then we play through the piece. But I also try to rely a lot on how the musicians are going to interpret these things; they may do something with it that I might never think of; in fact, most of the time they do. And that's what I like most about the bands I've played with. I think everyone who has had a band kind of feels that way; that the band itself forms how the music will be played; it's not dictated by any one person. Even though the original concept may come from me, the tunes may wind up sounding totally different in the end. I think what happens with any group is this incredible development of trust and freedom that you have when you know somebody. I think this band has developed a lot in terms of that, I think we're able to trust where everybody's going to go, and we don't worry about it so much. That's always an issue when you first put a band together, trying to trust everybody's sense of rhythm, their intuition, and where they're going to go with it.


Unlike many bands recording today, Abercrombie still has a fairly direct approach to recording, with very little done in the way of editing. "They're pretty much done as they're done," explains Abercrombie. "Obviously they're mixed, and this is where Manfred comes, perhaps, to his biggest creative point, because he really is great at hearing the music and putting it into some kind of landscape, or deciding how it would work best on the recording.

"But the only editing we do occasionally," continues Abercrombie, "like on the new record, is to fix something. There is this tune, called "Swirls," it's a bunch of lines that I play and then we improvise, but the lines are supposed to be played out of tempo. After the solos, I played the first line again, and Marc and Joey started to walk a jazz type of a tempo, and I had no idea how to put these lines in a tempo because they were originally conceived with no tempo. So I had to try and play them against their rhythm; I did the best I could but I really fudged some of them; Feldman, very intelligently stayed out of the whole mess, he didn't bother trying to play the lines with me, he waited until the end and then that was the end of the tune. We liked the take except the passage that sounded really messed up, it didn't sound very good. Mark went in and overdubbed the lines; he tried to approximate what I did, and he did it pretty much on the money, I don't know how he did it. In that case that was an edit; there are small edits along the way, more as repairs. We never use stuff like Protools; it's just not even a consideration, I wouldn't even know how to do that stuff. I know a lot of people do it now, they fix things and change the entire sound of something by patching in different parts of solos; I've never done that."

Simple Goals

Still, while Abercrombie experiments with the freedom that can be found within formal structure, at the end of the day his focus is to develop within that jazz tradition. But the challenge is always to find new means of expression, ways to escape the patterns that years of playing can sometimes impose. "When I practice I play things that are a little more traditional," Abercrombie explains. "But keeping things fresh, I think, has to do with attitude, somehow it's more about how you feel when you play. It doesn't relate to how you technically play your instrument, it just has to do with what the music sounds like. Sometimes I have to make a conscious effort to play something different. I find one of the things I talk about with my students, when I teach, is to try to follow your train of thought. When you start improvising you start with some idea, whether you are playing on a song form or playing completely free; there's some motif or element that starts your solo. And I'm a believer in trying to let that guide you through your solo, rather than being concerned about what you think you should be playing."

Whether in the context of his own groups, in collaboration with long-standing musical friends, or forging new relationships, John Abercrombie maintains a simple goal for himself. "Just trying to get it better," Abercrombie says. "I think that I play quite differently than I did back, say, in '76, but the concepts, or the idea of just trying to be a better guitarist, be a better musician, being able to play over changes, the kinds of things that a lot of musicians work on, that's what I work on daily. I work on more traditional things; a lot of things that get recorded may not sound that way, but if you could hear me practicing, I'd sound to you like a jazz player. I don't practice trying to play abstractly; a lot of that stuff just sort of happens through my associations with different musicians. I guess it's in there somewhere anyway, but my general bent is to try and be a good jazz guitarist."

And that's as simple and honest a goal as one can have. To be better; to work in the jazz tradition while still finding ways to expand it; to find ways of free expression within the context of form, development and movement; and to surround oneself with like minded musicians with whom the best sense of trust and freedom can be cultivated. With a still- growing discography that demonstrates a clear evolution without losing sight of what came before, John Abercrombie's career has been all about reverence and forward-thinking.

Photo credit: John R. Fowler

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