Remembering John Abercrombie

Craig Jolley BY

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There was the guy who played with Bill Haley and took a solo on '“Rock Around the Clock.'” If you go back to the recording it was kind of jazzy. He played more notes than other rock 'n' roll guys would play--he played some runs or something that attracted me.
This interview was first published at All About Jazz in March 2002.

After several years of groove-based and straight-ahead playing guitarist/composer John Abercrombie found his niche in the mid-70'’s with open-oriented Europeans and Americans who often recorded for ECM records. He has broadened his approach over the years with Eastern influences, electronics, and free music although he maintains a strong sense of the jazz tradition. He plays a variety of interactive music, refusing to be limited or compromised.

The ECM sound

Manfred Eicher who's the producer is present at a lot of the record dates. Things are recorded in similar studios with one or two engineers I can think of that we like, and there are a lot of similar musicians recording together. I think Manfred's aesthetic for recording is probably one of the best I've ever heard in terms of getting a really beautiful sound. I'm almost always happy with the sound on my records. I can't say I'm always happy with what I play, but even if I play lousy the sound will still be good! It was the same if you look at old Blue Note records that were recorded at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in New Jersey with Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, and all these people. They'’re all playing on each other's records, and they're all done in the same studio with the same producer. They had a similar sound.

New CD: Cat 'n'’ Mouse (ECM)

It'’s a quartet recording with Marc Feldman playing violin, Marc Johnson on bass, and Joey Baron on drums. It'’s sort of a continuation of the last CD in a way, which is called Open Land. That one was with a working band I've had for many years: Adam Nussbaum on drums and Dan Wall on Hammond organ. Marc Feldman, Kenny Wheeler, or Joe Lovano played on some tunes. That was more of a project. This is like a smaller version in that we don't have Kenny or Joe, and we don't have the organ, but we do have the violin. It'’s also a continuation of my relationship with Feldman in this guitar-violin thing we've been doing. And the album is probably a further departure from Open Land in that it's more abstract. There are about eight songs on the CD, and six are my compositions. Two are free improvisations. The compositions are mostly very open-ended, not structured like my other tunes. There are two pieces that are very structured: '"A Nice Idea," the first tune on the CD is a waltz; there'’s a piece later on called "Soundtrack”." Another way of looking at it is as a string band—there's just guitar bass and violin (and percussion). The free improvisations take on more of a classical chamber sound—it doesn't sound like the usual free jazz with saxophones. I enjoy playing freely with this ensemble more than any other because the instrumentation seems to lend itself to that.

Cat 'n'’ Mouse live performances

There's a week at the Jazz Standard in New York the week of March 26. There are a couple of gigs before that in Boston at Johnny D's, and at a club in Albany called the Van Dyke. There may be a gig at Blues Alley in Washington. At the end of April/beginning of May there's a three-week tour which will cover most of Europe. It starts in Italy, goes through Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. That's what's planned. After the CD's been out for a while maybe we can continue and do more gigs in the states—that's what I'd like to do. It'’s very difficult to work in the states on a consistent basis because of the cost of getting from one place to another and because the way people listen to music in the states is different from the way they listen in Europe. America in general is more of a traditional place. Sometimes it's hard to find places to play where in Europe there are countless places and a larger audience. The audience exists in the states—it's just smaller.

Early guitar influences

Starting in the late '50s my models were people like Chuck Berry. There was a wonderful guitarist named Mickey Baker. He was a jazz player but also played blues. There was the guy who played with Bill Haley and took a solo on '“Rock Around the Clock.'” If you go back to the recording it was kind of jazzy. He played more notes than other rock 'n'’ roll guys would play—he played some runs or something that attracted me. Then somebody played me a Barney Kessel record, some of the first jazz I ever heard. Since Barney was sort of a blues player anyway it was easy to make the jump from say Chuck Berry. The link was the blues and the electric guitar. (I didn't even know there was an acoustic guitar.) From there I went off to the Berklee School in Boston. At that time it was a small school. There were about ten guitar students. Now there are about a thousand enrolled in the program. It was one of the only places (or maybe the only one) that would accept electric guitar as a major instrument. I went there, attended school, and got to play with people around the town.

Fusion bands

In the late '60s I started to record with an organist named Johnny "Hammond" Smith [The Soulful Blues, Prestige]. Immediately following that I hooked up with Mike and Randy Brecker in a fusion band called Dreams—sort of a Blood, Sweat, and Tears type of band. We had a singer and everything. The mixture of rock 'n'’ roll and jazz was starting to happen. I stayed in that mindset for several years from the Dreams band through a band with Billy Cobham. In between I also worked with Chico Hamilton, which got me to move to New York City from Boston. Somewhere in the mid-70s I met Jack DeJohnette, Ralph Towner, Dave Holland. That was kind of the turning point. I started playing every kind of music from straight-ahead jazz and traditional songs to free improvisations to fusion—you name it. Seems like it was a wide-open time when people were experimenting with just about everything.


In the mid-70s I formed my own quartet with }}Richie Beirach}} on piano and George Mraz, a Czechoslovakian bassist—we were old buddies from Boston. The drummer was one of my oldest and closest friends, Peter Donald who lives in Los Angeles now. We stayed together for four or five years. The quartet actually made three recordings for ECM. Those haven't been reissued on CD yet. At some point I'm hoping they reissue at least one. That gave me a direction. I started to write more music, and I made my first recording under my own name in '’74. The record was called Timeless with DeJohnette on drums and Jan Hammer, another Czech, a wonderful musician who played piano, Hammond organ, and synthesizer. From then on it was just meeting people, playing with different folks, setting up a recording schedule with ECM. I began to meet a lot of European musicians like Jan Garbarek, Enrico Rava, and Palle Danielsson—sort of a United Nations of jazz. That gave me an experience playing with European musicians, and also I was participating in music that wasn't always jazz based. I started to get pretty schizophrenic—everything was happening at once. After the quartet broke up I formed a trio with Peter Erskine playing drums and Marc Johnson playing bass. It was one of my more popular bands. We played quite a bit in the States, and I think made four recordings for ECM. Marc, Peter, and I played together for four or five years. Then I formed my current band with Dan Wall and Adam Nussbaum. We recorded three CD's for ECM and then added Feldman on violin to the mix. That'’s kind of a capsulized version of where I've been. Where I'm going I don't know.

Billy Cobham band

I have very fond memories of playing with Billy. At that time that's what a lot of musicians my age living around New York got involved in. It was a way to make a living, and it was fun. The only thing I didn't get was harmony—the solos were like rock 'n'’ roll over one static harmony. None of the drummers ever played jazz rhythm—that was another thing I missed. But I got a lot from playing with Billy, a wonderful musician and a fantastic drummer. My technique took a real leap forward with him. I had to play strong and loud and hard and a lot more aggressive than I'd been used to. I still keep some of that type of playing in my personality. It was a great experience. I don't think I could do it again full-time because I couldn't take the volume. These bands were beyond the threshold of pain.

Gil Evans

I worked with this very legendary guy, although if you sat down and talked with him he was very down-to-earth. He was one of the most humble, easygoing guys I ever met in my life. He gave me a lot of opportunity to play and encouraged me to find my own voice. I'd tell him I wish I could play different styles better, and I wish I was more well rounded. Gil said to me once to be well rounded is to be mediocre—find what you do well and enhance that. He was always using Miles as a figure. Miles was someone who didn't just play hot bebop like everyone else. He had his own direction on how to play music and found a real voice. Gil was a great human being and a fantastic arranger and musician. I think we did one recording together, The Music of Jimi Hendrix (RCA). I know it's not Gil's best work, but it was still fun to be involved in that.

Bill Evans

I think with Bill it was his way of working with standard songs, his way of harmonizing them and making them for me come to life more than they ever had before. There was a certain kind of melancholy to Bill's playing. It was the same with Miles—not sentimental but just sort of melancholy, a brooding quality, introspective I guess. The trios he led, especially the one with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, were a new way to play a trio that was more interactive. How the bass, drums, and piano worked together made a very strong impact on me. The bass and drums didn't just play a steady time for Bill to play over; they actually got conversational. That stayed with me and became part of my playing. Plus Bill made some beautiful recordings with Jim Hall: two duo recordings called Undercurrent (United Artists) and Intermodulation (Verve). Those made a tremendous impact on me—of course I'm a guitarist and Jim was my favorite.

Astrud Gilberto, Ralph Towner, and Jack DeJohnette

I first met Ralph when he came through town with Astrud Gilberto, the singer. The band included a couple of Boston musicians—I think Charlie Mariano was in the band. At that time all guys my age were basically in love with Astrud Gilberto. It was the sound of her voice, and she was so pretty. The entire audience was Berklee students with hormones bursting out at the seams. Also the music was really beautiful. Ralph and I struck up a friendship immediately, but we didn't play for a few years until I moved to New York. He showed up at jam sessions playing mostly electric piano. He's also very good pianist. I didn'’t really play with him on guitars until the mid-70s. That came about through Manfred Eicher at ECM. He suggested that maybe Ralph and I could do something together. The result was a record called Sargasso Sea. We did one five years after that titled Five Years Later. That's another one that still hasn't been released on CD. We both like that one more than the first one. I think with Ralph besides great friendship we connect in that we'’re both Bill Evans fanatics, and even though we play completely differently we share the same musical tastes and values. He was probably the strongest influence on me as a composer. I think his compositions in general are some of the best next to Wayne Shorter. For a while I tried to write tunes that sounded like Ralph. Later I kind of found my own way. These days I don't write like Ralph but his influence is in there—harmonic devices that he uses, certain ways he approaches composition. As a player Jack DeJohnette is my biggest influence. Jack and Ralph are two really good friends. It'’s kind of nice to be influenced by your friends as opposed to being intimidated by them although they can be intimidating, too.

Gateway Trio with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette

There'’s always a plan to do something. The first two CD's we did were Homecoming and In the Moment. They were both done in the same session. In the Moment is a lot of free improvisation we did in the last couple of hours after doing the first recording. We still had some studio time left and Manfred said, '“Why don't you just play something, and we'll record it.'” About a year ago we did a tour in the summer, two or three weeks in Europe. Those guys are so busy. Dave recently has been getting a lot of work and recognition for his own band, which is long overdue. He'’s really taking advantage of that. He'’s also one of the most sought after bass players period. Both he and Jack are very busy people—much busier than myself. It's hard to get all three of us together but I'm sure we'll do something again. We have certain directions we seem to go in when we play together. Eastern music is one; another is free improvisation. Dave writes a lot of music that's maybe like some of the stuff on Cat 'n'’ Mouse—open vehicles for free improvisation. Jack writes the ballads for the band and plays piano on them. I'm kind of like the in-between guy. I write waltzes and simple little ditties. Being a guitar trio it's a pretty demanding job because I'm the one who plays the melodies. The Gateway Trio is probably the most challenging thing I do—it's very exposed, and these guys are incredibly strong players.

Musicians you'’d like to play with

Sonny Rollins is one of my favorite musicians of all time. There's always been a little bit of the "Gee, I wish...." I understand he's pretty private and doesn't like to work with a lot of new people. A lot of musicians like Miles and Bill Evans that I wish I could have played with are already passed on. I don't think at the time Bill was at his peak I was at a level to play with him. I know I wasn't. But I'm glad I came up when I did. I got to hear most of my favorite musicians live. I never got to hear Charlie Parker. Wes Montgomery, I used to sit up front and hear him. The kids I teach now never got the opportunity.

Jazz education

There are certain guidelines, and there are traditions and approaches, but jazz is very difficult to teach because it's not written music, and I don't think it should be. The hardest thing to teach somebody is how to take a solo—how to negotiate certain kinds of harmonies without just playing something that someone else played already. How to be intuitive— that's what a lot of really great jazz is about: people who have absorbed a lot of tradition but they're able to think quickly on their feet, and put ideas together off the top of their head. I try to get students to play more what they hear, have them play very simply, play less notes, have them concentrate on the sound they're making and on what kind of direction their improvisation is taking, follow their own train of thought. Those things are hard to formulize and make a system out of. I do a lot of playing with the students. I encourage them to write—writing and improvisation are really the same thing in a sense. When you're writing a song you start with an idea and develop it. That's improvisation except that with writing you can stop and change your mind. My approach if anything is to make improvisation more compositional. Also I encourage them. They don't know if they sound good. They get into very negative spaces—not liking what they play, constantly putting themselves down, and being very insecure. When players are talented I try to encourage them. I point out all the good stuff in their playing as well as point out things they can work on. If someone they respect tells them that it makes them feel good about themselves. It makes them listen more to the good stuff in their playing. Teaching is not easy—playing is much easier.

Sometime Ago

I have one project that I've been trying to get off the ground for a while. I think it will eventually happen. It's something related to my past, one of the bands that wasn't too well known—Art Farmer's Quartet with Jim Hall, Steve Swallow, and Pete La Roca. Walter Perkins played in an earlier quartet, but the band I used to hear live was with Pete. The record they made was To Sweden with Love (Atlantic), and it was all Swedish folk tunes slightly reharmonized. It'’s a gorgeous record, one of my favorite all-time records along with Sonny Rollins'’ The Bridge, Kind of Blue, and Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard. Of course I'’m a Jim Hall fan, and the way he played in that band was so special. I've contacted both Swallow and La Roca, and they're up for it. Of course I can'’t use Art, and I would have to play the role of Jim Hall. I would ask Kenny Wheeler to do it—he's one of the most lyrical trumpeters today, and he's up for it. The idea would not be to record music they did. Steve or Kenny (who are wonderful writers) or I would write the music. There was an old tune the band used to play "Sometime Ago" written by Sergio Mihanovich (an Argentinean!). It's a beautiful little waltz that I like to play from time to time. I'’ll put that on the CD if I ever get to do this project. I'd just call the CD Sometime Ago. It would be a reference to the period when that music was around. The hardest part of doing it is logistical. Steve Swallow probably works more than any other musician I know. He's on the road almost every day of his life. When he's not on the road he and Carla Bley (they live together) have a house somewhere near Tortola in the Virgin Islands or something. They go down there about four or five months at a time.

Website: johnabercrombie.com :

There'’s some biographical information and a complete discography but it's a little strange because on some of the recordings they don't tell you who I was playing with. All the ECM records are there, and there's some tour information which I have to update. The only thing that's not there is my music. That's something I want to do eventually.


The main guitar I've been playing recently is made by a company called Brian Moore Custom Guitars. They're out of Poughkeepsie, New York. It's sort of like a Les Paul-style guitar, but a little different. For years I played a Roger Sadowski Telecaster. Roger is a New York guitar repairer and maker. I have a couple of beautiful jazz guitars that were hand made for me: one by Ric McCurdy and the other by a California guitar maker named Jim Mapson. These last two are my guitars at home that I occasionally take out. I love them, but they're fragile. The first two are my workhorses that I take on the road.

Photo credit: Susan Gatschet

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