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John Abercrombie on ECM - Part 1: Through the '80s


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Now that the The First Quartet set of recordings by guitarist/composer John Abercrombie from 1979-1981 has been released, it is as good a time as any to explore Abercrombie's career on ECM as a leader/co-leader, plus some his work as a sideman.

There is a famous epithet from Bill Evans: "Jazz is not a what, it is a how." He is saying many things here, but essentially it is that jazz is not any particular rhythmic pattern (i.e. swing), harmonic sense (i.e. blues) or tune structure (i.e. standard 32-bar AABA form); it is not necessarily free improvisation nor "playing the changes," not hot or cool, happy or sad. All of those things are "whats," and of course, are part of jazz; but it is the "how" which uses these "whats" that is the important thing. This "how" is nothing but the freedom that the musician has when expressing himself emotionally through music—this is Bill Evans' "how."

The ECM label exemplifies this attitude. Restless and open-eared, the range of "styles" chosen by Manfred Eicher to record borders on astounding. However, there is a common thread which runs through everything: to a man or woman, each album is a personal emotional statement which connects the musician to the listener. It is much more than "mere" originality (see the various Standards albums by the Keith Jarrett / Gary Peacock / Jack DeJohnette trio). Also, much of the catalogue's music exists independent of the time it was recorded, and floats stylistically above time, resulting in the older releases "holding up" very well. Of course, those who have become familiar with ECM over the years (and back-filling from whenever they started) will be able to place a particular record in time.

John Abercrombie has one of the longest associations with ECM (along with others like Paul Bley, Jan Garbarek and Bobo Stenson, to name but a few). Through some kind of alchemy, Abercrombie manages to be almost immediately recognizable, but why this is so is decidedly unclear. It is more than just his physical sound (which has varied over his career), but is also his lines, phrasing and harmonic choices; this gestalt marks Abercrombie, but how the individual parts produce that gestalt is more than a bit mysterious.

Two other statements about Abercrombie:

From John Kelman's 2004 interview:

"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."

From Paul Olson's 2007 interview:

"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."

Abercrombie lists Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall as his main early guitar influences, along with John Coltrane as mentioned by Steve Lake in the notes to the live Abercrombie/Johnson/Erskine set. The Hall connection is particularly interesting in that Abercrombie points to Hall's sound (with a pick) as one of the reasons he changed to using his fingers, because he hated his own sound with a pick. Perhaps more importantly, the unique way Hall accompanies another player with notes, intervals and counter-lines, stood out to Abercrombie as something to emulate.

Abercrombie looks to Hall as a fellow traveler—a musician who is essentially conservative (standards are very important to him), but who is always trying to extend his range of expression. Hall, like Abercrombie, plays music that happens to be on the guitar, which is something the best players on any instrument manage to do.

Finally, Abercrombie epitomizes what is arguably the most important development in post-WWII jazz: the composer-player. While he maintains the tradition of playing standards (in his own unique way), Abercrombie is a prolific composer of "tunes" which have a harmonic and melodic structure that can be recognized, but which also many times have a floating quality. He also has a predilection for triple, rather than duple, time.

Following Abercrombie over these past forty years through his recordings is a wonderful exercise. However different his sound might be and wherever his development is at the moment, there is always something that immediately identifies Abercrombie. On the other hand, each album must be able to stand on its own, as if it is the first Abercrombie or ECM record heard and thus has no antecedents or connections; but these differing experiences is what makes listening to jazz so much fun.

Finally, Abercrombie on record is one thing, but live (from a 2007 organ trio date—could almost have been Tactics), is quite something else.

Below are the ECM recordings on which John Abercrombie is a leader or co-leader, interspersed with most of those on which he appears as a sideman, in number order, which might be a little different than recording year or release year order (given as release year (recorded year)). The discussions will center on Abercrombie's playing, and where a full review exists, it will be linked to, with reviews and links added over time.

TimelessJohn Abercrombie

ECM Records 1047
1975 (1974)

"Lungs" explodes to begin the album, placing it within the fusion era, as exemplified by Jan Hammer (of Mahavishnu Orchestra fame). Hammer and Abercrombie trade furious runs for the first quarter of the twelve minute track. After that, the track slows way down into "head" music, with Abercrombie wailing over a very low and "breathy" synthesizer vamp.

However, the rest of the album, except for Hammer's "Red And Orange" belongs to Abercrombie and his compositions. "Love Song" is a lushly beautiful rubato tune featuring acoustic guitar and piano, which couldn't be farther away from "Lungs" if it tried. Next is the very cool "Ralph's Piano Waltz," a favorite of Abercrombie's which reappears on Current Events, and in which he has not learned (yet) that less is more. "Remembering," another very pretty rubato tune, also with acoustic guitar, is built more on a melodic fragment, and shows how Abercrombie can create a coherent work out of small pieces.

Balancing out "Lungs" in its length, the monumentally atmospheric "Timeless" shows the way to the Abercrombie to come. After a four-minute 'timeless' and dramatic introduction, the tune proper is introduced—lightly floating over a deep, heavy keyboard line and light drums. Still giving in to his prodigious technique at times, the track builds in intensity and tension through repetition. Very heady and spacey, "Timeless" evokes its time while (in hindsight) looking to the future.

Overall, the album is very moving, and note that the album was not entitled "Lungs." In the liner notes to the First Quartet reissue, John Kelman quotes Abercrombie:

"When Manfred [Eicher] gave me the opportunity to record Timeless, that was my first real break; it helped me find my own way, because I was basically a John McLaughlin rip-off at the time," Abercrombie recalls, chuckling. "And then I wrote two tunes that pointed towards something else. 'Ralph's Piano Waltz,' my first legitimate composition, was a jazz waltz, and 'Timeless,' my second, was a sort of floating, atmospheric thing; I have no idea where it came from. So, all of a sudden, I thought, 'I do have something here; there is something going on.'"


ECM Records 1061
1975 (1975)

Gateway is a cooperative trio that has Abercrombie joining with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, both of whom have already recorded for ECM, which recorded three more albums: Gateway 2 two years later, and then, in what feels like a reunion, the 94-95 releases Homecoming and In The Moment, which were recorded at the same session.

For all intents and purposes a guitar "power trio" jam band, albeit with three equally powerful parts, the six intense tracks performed are dominated by four Holland compositions. Starting of with the country rockish "Back—Woods Song" which finds Abercrombie fitting right in that vibe supported by Holland's deep and powerful harmonically static vamp, but then again, always finding ways to play "outside" the confines of that style. At first disconcerting, these feints end up making the solo much more interesting. "Waiting" is just that—a short, two minute Holland solo with accompanying light interjections and support from DeJohnette.

"May Dance," at just over eleven minutes, the longest track, is listed as composed by Holland, but sounds very free with all three players, including some very interesting Abercrombie, keeping busy until the thematic phrase becomes clear and the group drops into a groove over which Abercrombie flies. Holland takes a long, intricate solo, on which Abercrombie and DeJohnette comment lightly. The groove finally returns with more amazingly free Abercrombie, dancing all the way to the theme's recap.

Ending the set is DeJohnette's "Sorcery I," which contains the most powerful playing by Abercrombie on the record. The spooky introduction leads to Abercrombie's highly overdriven and distorted guitar screaming into the dark. Next is a another deep vamp from Holland, strongly driven by DeJohnette; Abercrombie lets loose, and the best compliment here is to simply say that it would not be surprising for anyone to hear Jimi Hendrix's Band Of Gypsies album taken to the next level in parts of this superb solo.

From Kelman's 2004 interview: 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.

Cloud DanceCollin Walcott

Cloud Dance
ECM Records 1062
1976 (1975)

Collin Walcott meets Gateway. Walcott is a virtuoso sitar and tabla player who wished to merge the Indian musical ethos with that of jazz in the West. The opening track, "Margueritte" says everything about how this is going to work. Starting with what could be "pure" Indian music on sitar, except for a few intervals that jump out at the attentive listener, Walcott sets the stage for the band's entrance. Abercrombie's guitar sound and solo fits very well with Walcott's sitar as the tune bounces to the Holland and DeJohnette rhythm section. This is not "world" music, nor pure Indian music, but jazz with Indian inflections, which works well enough.

"Scimitar" and "Padma" are listed as by Walcott and Abercrombie, and both are under three minutes. The former finds Abercrombie sailing with distorted highs over Walcott's tablas, and is an interesting sound, but is more of an interlude. The latter is a duet between processed guitar (which sounds very much like sitar) and sitar, and again is an interesting interlude.

Holland contributes "Vadana," which has an expansive introduction of bass, guitar and sitar playing intertwining lines that builds tension and suspense as it proceeds, with a few repeated and surprising harmonic jumps along the way. The introduction never ends, however, and DeJohnette never enters.

The title tune ends the album in a quite satisfying way, as the band does indeed dance to a sound that is truly neither East nor West. Abercrombie fits right in as he and Walcott trade lines over a bubbling Holland and DeJohnette, creating music that sweeps all before it -and it does work.

The Pilgrim And The StarsEnrico Rava

The Pilgrim And The Stars
ECM Records 1063
1975 (1975)

With music that sounds remarkably fresh today, The Pilgrim And The Stars is an indication that good music is timeless and rises above any stylistic constraints of its era. The compositions, all by Rava (with Graciela Rava added for "By The Sea") vary widely, allowing for an attractive pacing and flow. Overall, there is a strong feeling of each individual performer's freedom intersecting, reacting with, and responding to the group sound of the moment, always colored, however, by the free romanticism of Rava's trumpet.

Although the album is obviously Rava's through his compositions and trumpet playing, Abercrombie very nearly steals the record with his intense, flying, and completely unpredictable solos, as well as his lush and well-placed, sharp accompaniment. While all of the tracks have something to offer, the title track and "Bella," besides being the longest, are standouts. Constructed similarly, their opening, rubato sections offer beauty and grace, before the band takes off in the middle, extended sections. It is here that Abercrombie, particularly in "Bella," shines, practically searing the speakers and eliciting a "woo," presumably from Rava.

Very intense playing from Abercrombie, reacting, of course to the needs of Rava's music. Full review here.

Sargasso SeaJohn Abercrombie

Sargasso Sea
ECM Records 1080
1976 (1976)

Abercrombie's personal and musical relationship with guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner is very important to him: "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." (from Kelman's 2004 interview).

The playing of Abercrombie and Towner on Sargasso Sea is nothing short of amazing in the way they react to each other's ideas; parts sound almost like classical compositions in the way everything fits together despite the obvious improvisation going on. The moods created range from the delicate interplay of the opening tune, Abercrombie's "Fable" and the shared improvisation "Sargasso Sea," to the roar of the electric Abercrombie in "Elbow Room."

"Staircase," with its intricate, simultaneously played lines is clearly much more of a composition, but once again, how well Abercrombie plays off and with Towner, despite the extreme difference between his electric sound and Towner's acoustic 12-String.

The last two tracks, Abercrombie's "Romantic Descension" and Towner's "Parasol" create an intensely personal mood. On the former, one can hear Abercrombie's fingers on the acoustic strings; on the latter he is delicate in his picking and his comping during Towner's piano solo glows. Beautiful music which floats outside of time and space.

Deer WanKenny Wheeler

Deer Wan
ECM Records 1102
1978 (1977)

Kenny Wheeler's compositions and playing are as unique and identifiable as Abercrombie's, with the same hard-to-pin down reason why this is so: "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." (from Kelman's 2004 interview).

The album has the feel of Wheeler setting out a sumptuous banquet, and then letting his quests take part in the bounty. "Peace For Five" is a huge piece (over sixteen minutes), split into two main parts. The first part opens with the floating theme stated by the band in a block choral style which leads to a solo by Wheeler that is very free in its phrasing and rhythmic feel. He is not a free player in the usual sense of a blizzard of notes and squeals, but rather in the way he stays in touch with the music behind him, yet is quite unpredictable. Holland then takes a solo that leads to the second fantastic section, driven by Holland and DeJohnette and introduced by the band. Abercrombie acquits himself quite well, but sometimes seems to fall back on patterns at times. Then comes a smoking Garbarek who is surprisingly (considering, for instance that his Places (ECM 1118, 1978) was recorded around this time) hot, and is pushed by Abercrombie's interjections, followed by an extended (perhaps too long) DeJohnette drum solo (again, very precise). The entire band recaps the theme in a singing choral anthem -superb arrangement, superb playing, great music.

"3/4 In The Afternoon," the "short tune," follows, and it is another minor masterpiece of beauty in composition and performance. The triple time, while palpably present, is subtle, and does not draw attention to itself, much like Abercrombie's "waltzes." Wheeler's gauzy and floating opening statement sets the mood, seconded by Garbarek. Ralph Towner (who appears on this track only) adds a very nice solo, with nice comping underneath by Abercrombie, which is answered by some soaring Wheeler and then Abercrombie in the upper range. Sexy, gentle, peaceful.

"Sumother Tune" features a more familiar Garbarek with a achingly emotional solo that builds with the very tasteful accompaniment of Abercrombie. The track seems to end about half-way through, but picks up with a higher energy vibe and more soaring Wheeler, only to almost end again as Abercrombie weaves his magic, with a clean sound this time, floating over Holland. The tune "begins" once again with a sound reminiscent of the end of "Peace For Five." Unexpected construction, but it works.

Title tunes bring higher expectations and "Deer Wan" does not disappoint, bringing together the various strands running through the recording. With energetic support of Holland and DeJohnette, Wheeler and Garbarek play their hearts out, followed by Abercrombie, whose long solo twists and turns, showing in its construction how he is connected to the tradition while always looking to extend it.

Gateway 2Gateway

Gateway 2
ECM Records 1105
1977 (1977)

"Opening," a group improvisation, has a kind of martial sound at first because of the drums. By far the longest track, the pedal set up by Holland finally gets into rhythm at around one quarter through, and they are off. Abercrombie, recorded back in the mix, is using a long echo and delay to play winding lines over the pedal; Holland and DeJohnette are smoking, allowing him to go wherever he wants and follow up on ideas that fall out. Holland's solo, backed by softer drums and some commenting by Abercrombie, jumps out of the speakers, leading back the previous pedal and vamp. DeJohnette takes a solo with two minutes to go, and it becomes clear how precise a drummer he really is. Holland's tremolo bowing and Abercrombie's soft tonal resolution end this outstanding track.

Holland's huge sound opens his "Reminiscence," accompanied by acoustic Abercrombie and soft DeJohnette cymbal washes. The guitar lines and changes imply a somber Americana feel, as the tune dies out hanging on the last Abercrombie note. "Sing Song," Abercrombie's only compositional contribution is a very good example of where Abercrombie had been heading; it never falls into a clear melodic or harmonic structure, yet it always feels coherent and logical as it proceeds, continually teasing the ear, mind and body as it threatens to taken off, but never quite does—pure Abercrombie, the shape-shifter.

After the workout on Holland's odd meter, but grooving "Nexus," featuring some exuberant, overdubbed Abercrombie, the album ends with DeJohnette's only composition, "Blue." Starting off with DeJohnette on piano which lays out the somewhat ominous mood, supported by deep Holland and attentive Abercrombie. As it spins out, this rubato ballad uses much space to create tension, but also hold interest. Very beautiful, with a deep 'blue' late-night feel, "Blue" has that circular melodic motion characteristic of a Tomasz Stanko tune; the last third is positively tear-inducing by its emotional depth and sheer euphony.

CharactersJohn Abercrombie

ECM Records 1117
1978 (1977)

The instruments listed on this solo, multilayered, multitrack album include "electric mandolin." Abercrombie explains in Kelman's notes to The First Quartet: "It was really a soprano guitar," Abercrombie explains, "tuned an octave higher than a guitar. But Fender originally marketed it as an electric mandolin, tuned in fifths. I was at a jam session where [Mahavishnu Orchestra violinist] Jerry Goodman showed up with one. I thought it sounded so cool; the next day I bought the last one they had at Manny's, and that became my instrument." He originally tried to play it tuned in fifths, but ultimately gave up, tuned it like a guitar with light strings an octave higher than normal (see here for more.

It might seem obvious to say so, but Characters has much of the feel of Sargasso Sea and Ralph Towner, albeit with all the music by Abercrombie. Much of what he has said about learning how to accompany Towner on that record is quite evident here. Also very apparent is how inventive, distinctive and unrepetitive Abercrombie's playing is.

Starting with "Parable," the longest track and a very catchy tune, the first four tracks are very pretty acoustic affairs. "Ghost Dance" changes all of that with an atmosphere dense with echo, delay and other electronics. Creating a huge sound stage, the music swirls, surges and recedes, telling a story as it develops; fascinating stuff and way, way beyond the playing in say, "Lungs" from Timeless.

"Paramour" returns to the acoustic sound, and has some very surprising harmonic twists and turns, with the overall sound of a standard tune stretched almost to the breaking point, while "After Thoughts" features Abercrombie not just playing accompaniment to a lead, but having two leads overlap and intertwine.

"Evensong" ends this wonderful record, with Abercrombie using his volume pedal and echo to create an atmosphere close to an organ in an empty church. Technically astounding, deeply contemplative and overtly beautiful, this track is almost overwhelming in its power.

Full review here.

John Kelman's liner notes to The First Quartet are very extensive, and some of it has been quoted above. Pertinent now are these bits:

"I hadn't been paying much attention to writing; I just wanted to be a jazz guitarist, and I didn't know what I wanted to write. I think I was so immersed in trying to play like other people that I never really looked into myself to see what might be there. [...] I'd been playing a lot of fusion music in the early '70s, and realized that I didn't want to play that kind of music for the rest of my life; I really wanted to play jazz. I wanted to go back to my roots and pick up where I left off. It was important to me and I wasn't really getting the chance to do that, so having a band with Richie, George and Peter really inspired me and propelled the writing."

"I was meeting new people, making new friends, hearing new music and getting influenced, not only by the music I'd heard on recordings and from my past, but from my friends' music—music that was starting to break out of the norm. They weren't bebop tunes; they were becoming a little more impressionistic. There was more space in them, the harmony more ambiguous—what they refer to now as 'nonfunctional harmony,' an interesting term because it actually functions really well, just not in a normal standard song setting."

"I started to realize that I loved standards, but I also loved the stuff that was coming from all my friends. I began to find my own way of doing some of the harmony, yet it didn't sound like Ralph or Richie. That was the interesting thing; there was their influence, but the tunes didn't sound like them at all; these were different, sounding almost like standards."

"So here I am, not only writing but performing, because I didn't perform with the Timeless band, nor did I perform Characters live," says Abercrombie. "Here I was, with a repertoire and three other musicians that I loved to play with, and we got a chance to go out and do it."

ArcadeJohn Abercrombie

ECM Records 1133
1979 (1978)

The title tune by Abercrombie immediately impresses with its delightful mix of suspense, atmosphere and drama, but also with feints to recognizable melodic phrases which work against the floating quality developed over the menacing vamp. The band is very tight, with Richie Beirach answering many of Abercrombie's phrases, plus interjecting quite a few well-placed dissonances. George Mraz and Peter Donald mesh completely and drive the music with intensity. The music is very exciting not only for its rhythmic intensity and story telling, but also for its the intellectual depth.

Beirach's "Nightlake" has a lower intensity, but it also is full of late night drama, telling a story. Abercrombie's long opening solo feels like one long line which never repeats itself, but which nevertheless has an understandable internal logic. "Paramour" first appeared on Characters, and is given a very touching treatment by the band.

"Neptune" (by Beirach) opens with floating piano arpeggios, which lead to the melody, played arco by Mraz. Abercrombie joins him with much echo and the space is defined. The occasional clear harmonic resolutions shock a bit at first as they shift under Abercrombie's very high lines that float over them.

The band has a most definite sound, which is an interesting mix of the atmospheric supplied by Abercrombie, contrasted by the sharpness of Beirach's playing. "Alchemy," the last and longest tune, also by Beirach, sums up where the band is. After a piano introduction, the melody, which has a clear structure that is subverted by unexpected or ambiguous harmony, is played by Abercrombie softly, accompanied by more arco Mraz. The development of and improvisation upon this melody shows how the band is a chamber group which spins out stories that are full of suspense and beauty with center of a cool heat that plays against it.

John Abercrombie QuartetJohn Abercrombie

John Abercrombie Quartet
ECM Records 1164
1980 (1979)

The compositional credits are now shared by Abercrombie and Beirach. Leading off with Abercrombie's "Blue Wolf" that sounds a bit like "Arcade" and shares with it the building of large-scale musical structures, suspense, menacing vamps and the internal heat which can erupt at any moment. The middle driving section shows how the band has matured and gelled, performing miniature instrumental stage pieces. How much of the music is arrangement was pre-planned is unknown, but it sounds spontaneous when the band is cooking—engrossing music and a terrific track. Abercrombie's playing with complete assurance.

Mraz introduces the next Abercrombie tune, "Dear Rain," the melodic line of which in its short quick scalar sections evokes "Blue Wolf" a bit. Once again, the musical and emotional space created and developed is huge, which on stage must have been mesmerizing. That almost the entire track sounds like an introduction is not apparent until it is over, enhancing the feel that the album is of a true set with an order, flow and direction.

The middle of the album contains three Beirach tunes, "Stray," "Madagascar" and "Riddles." The first hovers between the feeling of floating that the band embraces and the energy and groove, here supplied by Donald, which gives Abercrombie and Beirach the opportunity to play off each other. The track refuses to settle down in either mood, providing interesting tension for the listener. The middle tune gets a long, almost classical introduction from Beirach, after which the band joins in to produce a very dark, yet optimistic atmosphere. Another menacing vamp threatens the soaring Abercrombie; more theatrical, hang-on-every-note, intense chamber jazz. "Riddles" sounds at first to be out of place, but it is just that the inner heat has been allowed to surface and become the primary mood.

Beirach remarks in the set's notes about "Flashback" from M something apropos here: "I love play a pedal point," Beirach enthuses. "Everything is up for grabs—that's what modern means: C pedal is not C minor. It means whatever you want at that moment. Beirach is very hot here, as is Abercrombie, Mraz and Donald.

"Foolish Dog," by Abercrombie closes the set with a guitar sound that sounds like a 12-String, but could be a chorus effect. The dark moodiness of the previous tracks is still there, but it has been lightened and made more optimistic by a swinging rhythmic feel. Nice ending for the album and any live set.

MJohn Abercrombie

ECM Records 1191
1981 (1980)

Abercrombie from Kelman's liner notes: "It was hard record to do," says the guitarist. "My memory was that everything went down smoothly with the other two. But by the third one, it just started feeling like more of the same, though if I listen to the record today, it sounds completely different. That's what's really cool; the three albums don't sound at all alike. [emphasis added] But maybe, in our minds, we felt like we were starting to sound the same. M is a good record, but I always thought the other two were much better. The few moments on M that I think are good are really good, but as a whole, it wasn't as musical; it was more of a burning record."

M does sound different than Arcade or Abercrombie Quartet (which sound more similar than different), but the difference is that the first two feel more integrated and this one presents itself as more of a track-collection. The atmospheric gauziness is not as prevalent, the tunes are clearer in structure and Beirach's playing is even sharper and more in front, with Abercrombie's guitar surrounding the piano less.

To be sure, the opening "Boat Song," with the Eicher-inspired gong sounds sets up what initially feels like a continuation and intensification of the group sound and style honed in the first two albums. [As an aside, the notes, in a section on this tune, give a good description of how much Manfred Eicher gets involved in the recording process.] Abercrombie also remarks in the notes about how he felt that the studio used for M had a "rawer, harder" sound to it, making, by contrast, the Oslo albums [the first two] "more refined."

In any case, while each track has its own attractive qualities, they do not gel together as a set that was recorded in the way that was so strong before. Suffice it to say that M taken by itself is a fine record, it is just that the mix of strong imagery, large sound stage, controlled inner fire and menacing vamps is not there; perhaps this is what Abercrombie means by less musical.

Stand-out tracks besides "Boat Song" are "What Are The Rules," which has a distinct intellectual edge to its dissonances and angular lines that could fit in today, and of course, "Flashback" with its burning pedal-point groove that Beirach loves. The intensity of these two tracks is balanced by Abercrombie's beautiful acoustic ballad, "To Be."

As mentioned in John Kelman's notes, at this point Abercrombie wanted to move on, both in his sound and the kinds of things he wanted to do. The rest of the band did not want to come along, so perhaps M's sound and vibe is the result of an inevitable break-up, however much everyone liked the music and each other.

EventyrJan Garbarek

ECM Records 1200
1981 (1980)

At present, Jan Garbarek has seventy-five entries as a leader and sideman in the ECM catalogue; by 1980 he had appeared on twenty-five—clearly an ECM favorite. Abercrombie and Garbarek had worked together on Deer Wan and it is a complement to Abercrombie to be thought of as not only to fit in, but to add something to this recording.

"Keening" is the adjective forever connected Garbarek's sound; also interesting that which is blowing in the wind of his sonic images could be snow or sand, despite knowing Garbarek's Norwegian heritage. Are we in Scandinavia, the Middle East, Africa or South America (Nana Vasconcelos is Brazilian) with the music of Eventyr?

Interestingly, the entire trio is credited with the composition of four of the seven original tunes, but for his part in playing, Abercrombie does not come to the forefront that much. The soaring "Soria Maria" finds him adding sounds using the volume pedal; In "Weaving A Garland" (a traditional tune) he provides chordal accompaniment for the beautiful tune; in "Lillekort" he mostly doubles Garbarek's lines. on the melody.

However, on "Once Upon A Time," Abercrombie gets a chance to be a larger part of the overall sound, and it is hard to imagine another guitarist who can do so many things, including accompanying himself (overdubbed) in the central section.

Special mention must be made of the last tune, the standard "East Of The Sun And West Of The Moon," written by Brooks Bowman in 1934. If the title had not been listed, there is no doubt that the track would have been thought as another typical atmospheric piece. As it is, Garbarek has completely deconstructed the venerable tune, making it barely recognizable, especially in the closing vocalizations by Vasconcelos; however, the effect is mesmerizing.

Five Years LaterRalph Towner

Five Years Later
ECM Records 1207
1982 (1981)

Fives years removed from Sargasso Sea , Abercrombie gets together with Ralph Towner for another duo meeting. The results are quite amazing, especially in that there is not one second of flab and that a rhythm instrument is never found wanting, all done with very minimal overdubbing. The degree of close interplay and action/reaction is extremely high.

What must be assumed to be on-the-spot improvisations because they are credited to both (two Abercrombie/Towner and one the reverse)—"Late Night Passenger," "Microthema" and "Bumabia"—differ only by degree in their feeling of improvisational freedom from the composed tracks which have clearer melodic and harmonic structures.

Given that the creative energy is extremely high throughout, there are no easy stand-out tracks, except arguably the first and last improvisations due to their wide variety of textures and that they are the longest tracks, and yet maintain their forward motion every second. "Late Night Passenger" has towards the end a sound produced by Abercrombie in way that is not at all obvious and "Bumabia" has a very intriguing "train" section.

The composed tunes are all filled with many moments of great beauty; virtuosity is always placed in the service of making music—"The Juggler's Tune" stands out in this respect.

Abercrombie sounds include straight steel acoustic, vast electronic choruses of accompaniment, using pick and fingers. He also takes much care in his accompaniments to support and surround Towner, but not overwhelm him, as noted in Sargasso Sea.

Two masters creating a masterpiece. Full review here.

NightJohn Abercrombie

ECM Records 1272
1984 (1984)

Night could very well be called "Ten Years Later" because of its relationship to Timeless in style and personnel. Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette are back, and the trio is joined by Michael Brecker (listed as "Mike Brecker" on the disc). Perhaps not coincidentally, the TV show Miami Vice came out this year also.

In any case, there can be no question that Abercrombie's evolutionary direction starting with Sargasso Sea has hit an eddy with this release. But, this is only apparent when listening to his output in order, and the album's merits are apparent when considered as a work unto itself.

The cover art, combined with the title, gives a direct hint of the overall vibe: dark, brooding, urban, lonely and unsettled. The title tune itself, while very pretty, oozes images of someone walking empty city streets, perhaps wet from rain, lit by street lights and the occasional diner, bar or club. Coming after the harshly opening "Ethereggae," the only tune by Hammer, which ends with some very strong, stinging playing by Abercrombie only enhances the mood shift.

"3 East," which follows, mixes the preceding two moods by having a rather plaintive opening melody, supported by controlled burning rhythms and playing; Brecker shines here. "Look Around" continues in this mood initially, but then interjects a much heavier rhythm, before returning to earlier feel. Abercrombie has a long solo that is wonderful and includes some tasty octaves a la Wes Montgomery. The middle third is given over to some more fine, mournful Brecker before recapping.

The mood is lightened a bit in "Believe You Me," but it still has some underlying danger tied to faster and more energetic rhythms. This leads to the burning ending tune, "Four On One" which is as much of a workout as can be heard anywhere —very exciting rollercoaster ride with Abercrombie, Hammer, DeJohnette and Brecker on fire.

Current EventsJohn Abercrombie

Current Events
ECM Records 1311
1986 (1985)

The album title Current Events could very well imply Abercrombie's attitude of the moment and the formation of his new band with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Peter Erskine, both of whom had just recorded on Johnson's Bass Desires (ECM 1299), especially since it came immediately after the backward-looking Night.

What a sound erupts from the opening track, "Clint"! Sounding like multiple keyboards, a gigantic space opens up after the melodic declaration—a real statement of purpose, with Erskine pushing the music forward and Johnson providing rock solid bottom support and drive. Abercrombie is clearly a master of the synthesizer. But what does the title mean? Only in retrospect is there an answer, as at the very end, after the recap of the opening melody, the immediately recognizable thematic fragment (composed by Ennio Morricone) from the movie The Good, The Bad And The Ugly is heard, followed by some laughter. In retrospect, the track does have that optimistic, wide open feel of the American West. The mood of the album has been set, and all that follows benefits; terrific track.

"Alice In Wonderland" is a very pretty tune written in 1951 by Bob Hilliard and Sammy Fain for the Disney animated movie, which has become a somewhat obscure standard, performed by, among others, Bill Evans. The drop in sheer energy, which is momentarily shocking, is replaced by an intensity created by the treatment given it by Abercrombie and the band; there is not one extra note in this gem of a performance. Abercrombie's stated love for standards is on display and appearance many times in the coming years.

The next tune, "Ralph's Piano Waltz" was first heard way back on Timeless and is given a light, but sensitive treatment that builds as it proceeds; Johnson's solo in the middle is marvelous, while Abercrombie's guitar sounds acoustic as his ever-surprising lines ride over Erskine's delicate, but propulsive drums. Abercrombie shows his compositional skills with the beautiful "Lisa," played solo in melody/chord style that demonstrates his depth of emotional communication.

This fine album ends with its longest track, "Still." Opening with a bass solo, accompanied by what sounds like a small organ, Abercrombie's acoustic guitar finally appears out of the mist, announced by Erskine's cymbals. The harmonies float behind Abercrombie's lines that always have a direction, although without telegraphing where they will be going. This nine minute track manages to feel statically hanging in space while somehow moving forward; it ends without having really begun somehow.

This new Abercrombie trio is really on to something.

Getting ThereJohn Abercrombie

Getting There
ECM Records 1321
1987 (1987)

Does the title "Getting There" imply movement forward towards some musical goals Abercrombie have in mind? The inclusion of Michael Brecker, who appeared on Night, and who does not play on every track, makes it feel like he is looking forward while looking backward. Note that all compositions are by Abercrombie, except "Thalia" (Vince Mendoza) and "Furs On Ice" (Marc Johnson).

"Sidekicks" has the feel of "Clint" from Current Events —optimistic, open and upbeat. Again, this sound which opens the album sets the stage for all which follows.

After the pretty, but light "Lisa," comes the title tune which shares the feel of the title tune of Timeless, but with the dangerous edge of Night. Abercrombie's sound has lost almost all connection to the guitar, sounding like a keyboard using guitaristic licks; he flies high over the deep-space groove maintained by Johnson and Erskine in front of a guitar-synth chordal wash. Maybe the 'there' to which Abercrombie is 'getting' is a place and not a state of mind. In any case, his playing is both virtuosic and emotionally intense.

Brecker is back on "Remember Hymn," which with "Upon A Time," surrounds "Getting There" with beauty touched by a bit of melancholy. The unwinding tune has that Abercrombie mix of "floating logic"—melody and harmony which surprises while feeling inevitable. "Thalia" begins with an amazing technical accomplishment. Starting with what sounds like light vibes, but which must be Abercrombie, the fast twisting line has all the mannerisms of vibes. The line played within this skein of notes also has a sound that has nothing to do with guitar; the overall sound must be heard to be appreciated.

"Furs On Ice," the longest track, which will appear on the next, live album, not only has the vibe and feel of "Clint," but also the guitar-synth sound of the accompaniment to Brecker's melodic declamation. The tune itself is structurally simple, and sounds in parts (perhaps unintentionally) like a child's melodic taunt. Brecker really blows up a storm through the first half, and then Abercrombie takes over with a sound is a mix of chorus and electronic delay. He does not play fast this time, but makes the most of his short solo which leads back to the recap.

"Chance" opens with what sounds like an organist in a church. Abercrombie enters with acoustic guitar (backed by soft drums) playing simple phrases against the 'organ'; a charming miniature of a piece. The album ends with the short "Labour Day," which, after all that has preceded it, sounds like a 'standard' done by a conventional guitar trio, with the exception of the chorus effect on the guitar, and, of course, Abercrombie's lines are unlike any other player's; the end is pure Americana.

John Abercrombie / Marc Johnson / Peter ErskineJohn Abercrombie

John Abercrombie / Marc Johnson / Peter Erskine
ECM Records 1390
1989 (1988)

In a departure from normal ECM practice, there are over seven pages of notes by Steve Lake, of which these paragraphs are particularly relevant:

..." At the very least, I think, it demonstrates that there is no freer group playing standards today. An that, perhaps, begs the question: why play them at all?

"John Abercrombie: 'It feels really important to me to play them. They've become so personal to me that I don't even think of them as "standards" any more. It's almost like they're my tunes. The standards and the more "traditional" guitar tone are tied up together, in my mind, as the foundation of my music, and I'm working to expand that the way that players like Keith (Jarrett) and Paul Bley have expanded the piano -to get to this open 'dimension.' 'Open' is a word that comes up often in conversation with the Abercrombie Trio. Peter Erskine describes John as 'the most open of all guitarists,' adding 'I couldn't really play trio music at all until I came to this band. Playing piano trios, I've often felt blocked by the pianist's left hand -it interferes with the free flow of my ideas. The guitar doesn't have that aspect and with John, particularly, it seems like there's so much room to allow things to evolve."

"Marc Johnson agrees. 'The more we play together the more we develop our own voice, inside the standards. I'm always pleased to return to them in the course of an evening. John is really starting to play something very different, linearly, going right outside the chords, in a way that's coherent, all the way through a chorus. It's exciting to me, it's stretching my ears and I'm finding new things, intervallically—leaving the root movement of the chord, even changing the root entirely. It feels to me like the harmony is really beginning to open up.' Blossoming, yes. It's the appropriate image."

"All four of the standards on this live set are associated with Bill Evans. Evans, of course was once Marc Johnson's boss and (with Coltrane) probably the biggest influence on Abercrombie's music. (John's vision has never been limited by guitar history. He's always been drawn to those players who transcended their instrument and gave us music.) And the trio would, I think, subscribe to Evans's view of introspection and dedication as the main route to profundity."

The standards ("Stella By Starlight," "Alice In Wonderland," "Beautiful Love" and "Haunted Heart") really do steal the set. After "Furs On Ice," introduced on Getting There, with its large, block, synthesizer chords and high energy is over, the first three standards take up the next twenty-four minutes. Concentrated intensity is the feeling here, and one wishes it were possible to hold one's breath with the recorded audience for the entire time and hang on tight for the duration of the trip; Abercrombie's playing is completely unpredictable.

The next original tunes demonstrate in a different context how original and sharp this particular trio really is. The relatively subdued (but with an inner tension) next two tunes sound of a piece, followed by a three-minute Erskine drum solo that is extremely musical, rather than purely rhythmic. Johnson joins in near the end to lead to "Four On One," which takes its time to get going, but when it does, about half-way through, watch out; "Samurai Hee-Haw" starts immediately with the guitar synthesizer and Abercrombie plays the rocking rhythm for all it is worth.

The fourth standard, "Haunted Heart" opens with a solo introduction by Abercrombie, soon to be joined by Johnson and a very soft Erskine. A lovely, intimate and extremely rewarding way to end this fabulous set; there must not have a dry eye in the house.

This is edge-of-the-seat live music that takes one's breath away. The audience clearly loved and responded to this set. Live recordings are obviously closer to the "real thing" than studio recordings, and in Abercrombie's case with this band, this record shows that he can produce the sounds live, in real time, that were originally captured in the studio, so this is the next best thing to "being there."

This ends Part One of this retrospective of John Abercrombie's career on ECM in the '80s. Part Two will pick up from the '90s through the present.

Tracks and Personnel

Timeless(ECM 1047)

Tracks: Lungs; Love Song; Ralph's Piano Waltz; Red And Orange; Remembering; Timeless.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: guitar; Jan Hammer: keyboards; Jack DeJohnette: drums.

Gateway (ECM 1061)

Tracks: Back -Woods Song; Waiting; May Dance; Unshielded Desire; Jamala; Sorcery I.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: guitar; Dave Holland: double-bass; Jack DeJohnette.

Cloud Dance (ECM 1062)

Tracks: Margueritte; Prancing; Night Glider; Scimitar; Vadana; Eastern Song; Padma; Cloud Dance.

Personnel: Collin Walcott: sitar, tabla John Abercrombie: guitar; Dave Holland: double-bass; Jack DeJohnette: drums.

The Pilgrim And The Stars (ECM 1063)

Tracks: The Pilgrim And The Stars; Parks; Bella; Pesce Naufrago; Surprise Hotel; By The Sea; Blancasnow.

Personnel: Enrico Rava: trumpet; John Abercrombie: guitar; Palle Danielsson: double-bass; Jon Christensen: drums.

Sargasso Sea (ECM 1080)

Tracks: Fable; Avenue; Sargasso Sea; Over And Gone; Elbow Room; Staircase; Romantic Descension; Parasol.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: electric and acoustic guitar; Ralph Towner: 12-String and Classical guitars, piano.

Deer Wan (ECM 1102)

Tracks: Peace For Five; 3/4 In The Afternoon; Sumother Song; Deer Wan.

Personnel: Kenny Wheeler: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jan Garbarek: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; John Abercrombie: electric guitar, electric mandolin; Dave Holland: double-bass; Jack DeJohnette: drums; Ralph Towner: 12-String guitar (track 2).

Gateway 2 (ECM 1105)

Tracks: Opening; Reminiscence; Sing Song; Nexus; Blue.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: electric and acoustic guitars, electric mandolin; Dave Holland: double-bass; Jack DeJohnette: drums.

Characters (ECM 1117)

Tracks: Parable; Memoir; Telegram; Backward Glance; Ghost Dance; Paramour; After Thoughts; Evensong.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: electric and acoustic guitars, electric mandolin.

Arcade (ECM 1133)

Tracks: Arcade; Nightlake; Paramour; Neptune; Alchemy.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: guitar, mandolin guitar; Richie Beirach: piano; George Mraz: double bass; Peter Donald: drums.

Abercrombie Quartet (ECM 1164)

Tracks: Blue Wolf; Dear Rain; Stray; Madagascar; Riddles; Foolish Dog.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: guitar, mandolin guitar; Richie Beirach: piano; George Mraz: double bass; Peter Donald: drums.

M (ECM 1191)

Tracks: Boat Song; M; What Are The Rules; Flashback; To Be; Veils; Pebbles.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: guitar, mandolin guitar; Richie Beirach: piano; George Mraz: double bass; Peter Donald: drums.

Eventyr (ECM 1200)

Tracks: Soria Maria; Lillekort; Eventyr; Weaving A Garland; Once Upon A Time; The Companion; Snipp, Snapp, Snute; East Of The Sun And West Of The Moon.

Personnel: Jan Garbarek: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flutes; John Abercrombie: electric guitar, electric 12-string guitar, mandolin guitar; Nana Vasconcelos: Berimbau, talking drum; percussion; voice.

Five Years Later (ECM 1207)

Tracks: Late Night Passenger; Isla; Half Past Two; Microthema; Caminata; The Juggler's Etude; Bumabia; Child's Play.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: acoustic guitar, electric guitar, electric 12-string guitar, mandolin guitar; Ralph Towner: 12-string guitar, classical guitar.

Night (ECM 1272)

Tracks: Ethereggae; Night; 3 East; Look Around; Believe You Me; Four On One.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: guitar; Jan Hammer: keyboards; Jack DeJohnette; Mike Brecker: tenor saxophone.

Current Events (ECM 1311)

Tracks: Clint; Alice In Wonderland; Ralph's Piano Waltz; Lisa; Hippityville; Killing Time; Still.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: guitar, guitar synthesizer; Marc Johnson: bass; Peter Erskine: drums.

Getting There (ECM 1321)

Tracks: Sidekicks; Upon A Time; Getting There; Remember Hymn; Thalia; Furs On Ice; Chance; Labour Day.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: electric guitar, acoustic guitar, guitar synthesizer; Marc Johnson: bass; Peter Erskine: drums.

John Abercrombie / Marc Johnson / Peter Erskine (ECM 1390)

Tracks: Furs On Ice; Stella By Starlight; Alice In Wonderland; Beautiful Love; Innerplay; Light Beam; Drum Solo; Four On One; Samurai Hee-Haw; Haunted Heart.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: guitar, guitar synthesizer; Marc Johnson: bass; Peter Erskine: drums.

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