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This past August the world lost one of the most distinctive voices of jazz guitar in the past 50 years. John Abercrombie's music was a strong influence and inspiration for many guitarists and musicians developing in the '80s and '90s. His sound, touch and thoughtfulness was immediately distinctive from other guitar heroes of that or any other time. He was more often lyrical and poetic than technique oriented, with a sensitivity to phrasing that seemed innate to him. A story teller with a strong voice. his playing and his composing came from one integrated aesthetic and style. He was a prolific composer and recorded more than fifty ECM sessions averaging two albums a year as leader or co-leader. Among his essential recording I would include Timeless, Getting There, Current Events, Open Land, Gateway, 39 Steps, and his live trio recording with Marc Johnson and Peter Erskine from 1989. I had the pleasure of knowing him and found him to be a player with no ego who had a great sense of humor. Hearing him play standards was an enlightening experience. Listen to "Beautiful Love" and "Alice in Wonderland" on the live trio record from 1989. I remember a gig at Fat Tuesday with Joe Lovano and Marc Johnson where he played a version of "Stella By Starlight" that astonished and perplexed me at the time. But I think it was his playing combined with his compositions that impacted me the most. Just a few months ago I spent some time with his record 39 Steps from 2013 and was once again struck by his lyricism and depth. There is a patience and poeticism to his later works that is hard to come by. I've asked some musicians who worked with him, knew him, and were inspired and influenced by him to offer a few words.
"Playing music with John Abercrombie, and knowing him as a friend, has been one of the true highlights of my life. John loved nothing more than getting together in his living room to play...without agenda...more as a kind of social ritual. His main interest was in spontaneous musical conversation. He'd nothing to prove, was not particularly concerned with technical considerations, but always had something interesting to say. Music was a natural, intuitive expression of his inner self. Coupled with his fabulous, irreverent sense of humor [Absorbine The Greek, Jr. indeed!], playing and touring with him was pure joy. His large catalog of originals is chock full of melodic gems as idiosyncratic as their composer. He was, and remains, the essential composer/improvisor. I will miss him."
The special thing that stands out about John is his natural democratic manner as a player and writer. He could not help itit's just the way he was. John always welcomed his bandmates' ideas and was a fearless team player. He had the whole package: energy, beauty, surprise, lyricism, soul, and swing.
I was lucky to have studied with John Abercrombie in 1987 on a trip to NY and later that summer in Banff. The albums, Gateway, Night , and Current Events were albums of his that I had listened to heavily at that point. I was trying to copy his fluid sound and way of phrasing on the guitar. I loved the sense space and mystery about his sound and deep compositions. His solos seemed perfect to me, I loved how they would rise organically out of his tunes and how he would build his solos to a burn like at the end of "Ethereggae," and "Hippityville." It was all swirling in my head when I got to meet him for a lesson in June 1987. I remember we talked about none of those things, but we talked a lot about Jim Hall! He showed me how to practice a tune using chord tones with whole, half, quarter notes, 8th notes, triplets, outlining the changes of "Stella by Starlight." His way of sharing this with me was so humble and generous, it resonated right away with me and made me hear his playing in a new and deeper contextespecially how connected it was to Jim Hall. Later that summer at Banff I got to hang around him a lot more. I remember a long hike where John made us laugh so hard for hours in his self deprecating and slightly dark sense of humor. Things got progressively funnier the longer we were out there especially when the sun started going down and we were still a long way from back!
I first heard John Abercrombie on his earlier records, the first quartet and duos with Ralph Towner, and have been a fan ever since. His melodicism, fearlessness in improvising, and beautiful compositions have been an inspiration to me for years. I'd heard John play live many times, but one gig in particular still sticks in my mind as one of the most amazing live performances I've ever heard. I was lucky to catch the Gateway trio the night before I was to play at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2001. They went about every place in the galaxy you could imagine and then some.
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