UPDATE AUG. 24, 2017: We just learned of Abercrombie’s passing this week, on August 22. According to a statement issued by his label, ECM:
“It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of the great guitarist John Abercrombie. One of the great improvisers, he died on August 22, after a long illness. He will be much missed, for his sensitive musicality, his good companionship, and his dry humor which enhanced many a session. He leaves behind an extensive discography which will be studied as long as people continue to play jazz guitar.”
BLURT extends its deepest condolences to Abercrombie’s family and friends. In tribute, we humbly re-publish the below interview from January of this year. – Ed.
UPDATE JAN. 19: We just learned from Abercrombie’s label, ECM, that the musician, in his early 70s, has been hospitalized with pneumonia. All currently scheduled tour dates have been canceled for the time being and we will republish this interview when rescheduled dates are announced. And our heartfelt prayers and support to Abercrombie, his family, and his fellow bandmembers.
With the recent release of a retrospective of his first Quartet and a new album from his latest four-piece (pictured above), plus an extensive U.S. tour looming, the jazz guitar legend talks about his long, celebrated career. Tour dates follow the interview.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
When talk turns to great jazz guitarists, certain names always come up: Jim Hall, Barney Kessell, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, John Scofield. Though not the household name of his predecessors and peers, John Abercrombie belongs in that pantheon. Steeped in the traditions of Hall and Montgomery while constantly stretching their boundaries, Abercrombie brings a perfect balance of technical skill, soulful feel and fertile imagination to his projects. That balance has earned him four decades’ worth of gigs with everyone from Gato Barbieri, Gil Evans and Billy Cobham to Charles Lloyd, Jack DeJohnette and Kenny Wheeler.
But it’s as a leader in his own right that’s truly put Abercrombie on the map. During a 40-plus stint with Manfred Eicher’s ECM Records, Abercrombie has recorded in many different contexts, from the fusion of his 1974 debut Timeless and the orchestral electronics of 1989’s Animato to his guitar duets with fellow ECM mainstay Ralph Towner and his reimagination of the organ trio in his mid-90s record with Hammond master Dan Wall. That’s not to mention the ethereal dynamics of Gateway, his collective with DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland, and his late ‘80s trio with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Peter Erskine.
It is Abercrombie’s quartet work, however, that is perhaps most celebrated. Recently collected in the three-disk box The First Quartet, the records made by his first four-piece band – with pianist Richard Beirbach, bassist George Mraz and drummer Peter Donald – represented a step forward for his musical vision, and his return to the quartet format in the 2000s with Johnson, drummer Joey Baron and violinist Marc Feldman was hailed as some of the best work of his career. Debuting in 2013 with 39 Steps, Abercrombie’s latest foursome with Baron, bassist Drew Gress and old friend Marc Copland on piano continues the guitarist’s upward creative arc. Up and Coming, the band’s new album, comes on the eve of a U.S. tour, and is one of Abercrombie’s most tasteful and imaginative works.
We spoke to Abercrombie the day before Christmas Eve about the album’s creation, his early development as a musician, and more.
BLURT: Congratulations on Up and Coming. It’s a beautiful recording.
ABERCROMBIE: Thanks a lot.
How was the recording experience for that album?
It was very relaxed. It was just four musicians, the engineer James Farber and, of course, the producer Manfred Eicher. It was a very quick session. For some reason it just seemed to zip on by. A couple things we recorded, when we listened back to them, we didn’t like them, so we didn’t use them. We didn’t belabor it and so we wound up with what we wound up with. So overall it was very relaxed. We did it in two days. We mixed it on the third day. Manfred is very fast. We mixed it in about four hours and then it was done. I guess all I had to do was come up with titles. Sometimes it’s easier to write the song than think of what to call it – you just write the song and it doesn’t necessarily have a meaning to you. It’s not about a sunny day or a pretty girl – it’s just a song and you don’t know what to call it. Sometimes you just have to make up funny titles, and every once in a while something just comes to you that seems to suit the song.
I’ve often wondered how people who aren’t writing lyrics and choruses come up with the titles for these things.
It’s tricky. You go through a lot of possibilities. Everyone does it personally. Some people like very fantastic titles or romantic titles. I tend to like titles that are sort of tongue and cheek or might have a couple of meanings. Like “Up and Coming” – there’s two meanings to that title. It has a melody and chord progression that ascends, it’s kinda going up – it’s coming up, actually. Since it’s a new cd from this band, I had to call it Up and Coming. Sometimes there’s reasons and sometimes there’s not (laughs)
What’s your favorite song on the album?
I like the second tune on the record “Flip Side.” It’s very short. It’s a rehearsal take. We didn’t even know we were being recorded. We were just running the tune down and getting on the same page, and we did a few more takes. Manfred said, “You should listen to this other take,” which we didn’t know was recorded, because we played the tune from beginning to end and we took solos and it was a little on the short side. But I think it’s one of my favorite tunes on the record. Then I also like the thing called “Sunday School.”
When you sit down with a group of musicians, especially your current quartet, do you know which direction the music is going to go, or do you just go in and it just comes out when you start performing?
I have a basic idea of how I want the tune to go – approximately what kind of feeling I want the tune to have rhythmically. I usually have basic things like the feeling, the tempo, maybe – other than that I don’t put in a lot. When I write these things, I just put sketches on paper. It is the song – it’s got all the melody, notes and chords. I guess most of the rhythms and the melody are close, but I’m in a hurry and I jot them down and I don’t make the rhythms or the melody exact. I just get them on paper so I have something to show somebody. And then they say, “Well, how do you want this melody phrased?” Then I will say, “This is how I kinda hear it.” Because if I play the melodies by myself, I can play them any way that I want. I’m not trying to play them with somebody. Then we usually run the tunes down and I’m always wide open for anything a musician, especially these guys, would have to say about the tune in terms of how to perform or not perform it. If somebody said a really negative response to the tune, I don’t want to force the tune on somebody. I’ll save it for another time.
Do you ever have that?
No, I’ve never really had that, but I’ve had tunes that I felt that way about. After I’ve performed them or rehearsed them, I’ve said, “Yeah, I’m not as crazy about this tune as some other tune.” So I just don’t play it. So I’ve got maybe about ten tunes like that, sitting around that never got recorded and hardly ever get played, but every once in a while I’ll play one of them.
Just to see if you still feel the same way about it?
Yeah. If you leave time, you might actually realize, “Well, this is actually a pretty good song. I don’t know why I didn’t like it in the first place.”
You’re grounded in the jazz tradition, but you’re also constantly pushing the grounds of what that means. How do you achieve that balance between having one foot in the tradition and the other always going in your own way?
I think the traditional part of it comes from what I experienced when I first started to play jazz. I didn’t start out playing jazz. I started out in the late 50’s playing rock and roll – listening to Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and all these people. When I first heard jazz, I decided I wanted to play that. I went to the Berklee School of Music in Boston and was listening to music, hearing live music, playing music and that’s where the traditional part got formed, and in those days that’s all there was. There wasn’t fusion – music hadn’t started to melt together in this big pot. Basically I wanted to become a jazz musician and that’s all I put my time into. I didn’t listen to rock and roll. I didn’t listen to Indian music, but that came later in the 60’s. People started listening to all that music, so I thought there must be something to it. So I jumped on the bandwagon and started listening. I found myself playing in a lot of fusion bands and then later, free bands and bands that did ethnic music. They mixed things up a lot and I kinda lost track of the jazz, but I was starting to develop something else. I was playing folk music, I was playing rock music, different kinds of things. I think that early experience of playing different types of music opened my head up and made me start to mix things together and try to find new or other ways to play anything.
Those days if you wanted to play jazz guitar, you could go to a recording of Wes Montgomery or Kenny Burrell or Jim Hall or Tal Farlow and there was a reference point on how to play that music. But when I started playing in these situations I was getting involved with, there was no reference point really for guitarists. People were writing their own music and you just had to fit into it. When you have to fit into something that you don’t understand and you’re just trying to make it work, you come up with interesting chord voicings, techniques, sounds. This is where the more far-reaching aspect comes in.
My first real love is jazz. If I had to say this one thing, I’d say I like jazz. Mostly I like from the 60s on. I like the earlier jazz a lot, too, but I don’t listen to it a whole lot, so I tend to listen to Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Coltrane and Jim Hall. The people that were on the scene and making newer music when I was coming up.
This current band is on its second album together. But you’ve been playing with Joey Baron and Marc Copland for a decades. How did this particular band of players come together as a group?
I’ve known Marc the longest. I played with him back in the early 70s when he was playing saxophone with Chico Hamilton’s band. Then Joey I met in California – when he moved to New York, we would get together at my house and just improv and do jam sessions at my loft in New York. The band before this one was with Mark Feldman playing violin and Joey Baron and Marc Johnson, and I had been playing with Marc, so he was a logical choice and then I just called Joey Baron and he was totally into it, and that became a band for five years or so.
When I decided to start this new band, Marc [Copland] and I had a relation playing guitar and piano. I had recorded on several of his little projects. So I said, “Let’s just try this and see what it sounds like and feels like.” So we got our agency in Europe to set up a tour. We hadn’t planned on particularly recording it. We were just doing a tour, just having some gigs and some fun. Manfred came to a gig we got in Switzerland. After the set he just came rushing up and said, “We must record this band.” I said OK. I enjoyed it, but I hadn’t thought about presenting it to him as a project, particularly. I didn’t know how it was going to work out because it was the first time we were all playing together in this configuration.
Drew Gress came about largely because of my affiliation with Marc Copland. Marc knew Drew from a period when Marc lived around Washington and Baltimore and that’s about where Drew went to school. So Marc introduced me to Drew and I immediately liked the way Drew played. I found it very refreshing. That’s why I put these four people together for the tour. When Manfred got very excited about the music, then we got serious about it, and then I said, “I’ll write some tunes. I’ll write some things and as soon as I have anything that looks decent, I’ll get in touch with you and we’ll try to set up a record date,” and that’s what happened. That’s when we did 39 Steps.
Is this group giving you something that previous groups didn’t?
I used to have a piano quartet way back in the late 70’s with Richie Beirbach and George Mraz and a drummer named Peter Donald, and they recently reissued the three recordings of that band. So I have had this instrumentation before, but since then I’ve gone on to mostly piano-less groups. Although I have worked with Hammond organ, which I like very much. But I think one of the things I get from it is having the support of a harmonic player like Copland. He’s there to support me, so I can play off of the sound of the harmony as well as playing off of the bass and drums. I can hear the notes I choose against the harmonies and that’s something I really like. Even though it would seem like the guitar is the main upfront voice of the band, it’s not really that way. I feel everybody is a little more equal in this band. I like the interplay and the way people listen, and I think the new record really captures that. I think it captures it maybe more than [39 Steps]. There’s some very interesting things on it. Maybe more interesting for me than an average listener, because I know how the songs are constructed and I hear funny things going on, and guys interacting and leaving certain things out.
One place, we actually forget where we were in the tune, but we left it that way. Nobody was lost, the tune didn’t fall apart and it sounded really good, so we just left it. But there’s a couple of spaces where you can’t tell who’s playing, but it sounds nice. We’re sort of trying to decide who’s gonna take the reins now and we’re all sort of holding back a little bit, and so I do it. That’s in “Up and Coming” – there’s these little spaces. It’s right after the piano solo. You’ll hear this little pause where I think Drew is probably gonna jump in because he starts to play something that sounds like he’s gonna take a solo, but then he backs off. So I come in and play something and he thinks I’m gonna play a solo and I’m just sorta accompanying him, and about a half a chorus goes by where nobody is really in the foreground, and then all of the sudden then I say, “Well, I better take it, because I don’t think Drew is gonna take it.” It was very relaxed. I wasn’t angry. I knew if it did fall apart, we’d just do another take. It’s no big deal. Listening back to it, I thought it sounded pretty cool.
Those are the things that make music sound human.
You make what might be construed as a mistake, but it’s really not. You’re listening so well, and there’s such a democracy in the whole thing. I’m waiting for him to play, he’s waiting for me to play, so “After you, my good man, you go ahead.” It’s being polite, too, and very aware of the other people and what they are contributing, and trying to allow that to happen. So it’s not just playing the same way every night. It always comes out a little bit different, which I thought was always the point of this music anyway.
Especially when you’re improvising on a tune, you have something that most classical musicians don’t do. There’s a composed piece of music and they just to interpret it and express it, which is great, but they don’t improvise on a Beethoven sonata. But we do. We improvise on these structures and songs that I set up or Marc set up, so we have to really know how the harmony and melody and rhythm of everything is working, because we’re using all of this when we improvise, which is tricky.
You’ve had a very long association with ECM records as both a leader and session player. What makes ECM special and why have you stayed with them for so long?
They’re special because Manfred is a real producer. He’s doesn’t want you to play just something that’s going to be popular or try to fit into a current type of music. He wants you to play what you play, and he’s always been very encouraging to me and supportive of me. I did my first record in 1974, so that’s quite a long time. One of the reasons that I stay with ECM is that I know I’m going to get to do what I want to do, pretty much. I have to take advice from Manfred from time to time, and I’m willing to do that. But I know I’m gonna get basically to do what I want to do with the musicians I want to do it with, and it’s gonna get recorded beautifully and be beautifully presented. I don’t think that would happen with any other [jazz] label, because there’s not even that many labels left. Most of the labels around are small, and don’t really have the bucks to do stuff.
I know most of the younger musicians now do everything themselves. Which means they have complete control over what they do, but as far as them ever making any money from it? It’s pretty iffy. You need to have the recording to try to get work so that you can play and keep doing what it is that you’re doing. That’s how I look at the recordings – they’re sort of like documents, but they are also passports to work. People see a new recording and they say, “Oh, this guy has made another record, wow!” And when it’s new, there’s more excitement. People tend to listen to it more and then you get work, hopefully.
Speaking of some of your ECM compatriots, I spoke to Jack DeJohnette just about a week ago. When I first starting listening to jazz around the mid- to late 80’s, one of the first three or four jazz albums that I bought was Gateway 2. That was a huge influence on my jazz listening and one of the reasons I’ve been so fond of both your music. Do you think there might ever be more Gateway music at some point in the future?
I don’t know. I would like to think that there could be. If we could all just find a period where we are free at the same time and want to do it, it could come together very quickly. All it would take would be a short rehearsal, some ideas for tunes, and going in to record it.
I haven’t been in touch very much in the last few years with Jack or Dave. We’ve all been doing our own things. Jack is usually doing a million different things. I’m not really quite sure what Dave’s band is doing right now. I think the last I heard it was with Kevin Eubanks. Similar instrumentation with my group, except Craig Taborn played electric instruments a lot. We started out when we were probably in our late 30s, and now we’re considerably older. It would be nice to come back and do one more before we’re no longer here. Maybe if I speak to Jack, I’m the sure the topic would come up.
You’ve played with Gil Evans, Chico Hamilton, Billy Cobham’s fusion band, John Scofield, Charles Lloyd, Kenny Wheeler – all these amazing musicians. Outside of your own records, what was the most memorable musical experience for you?
Playing with Gateway and Ralph Towner was memorable. I really loved playing with Kenny Wheeler, because I just loved his music, his playing. His compositions and Ralph Towner’s always struck me as being sort of perfect. They influenced me a lot – when I first met Ralph, I tried to write compositions like he was writing. The same when I met Kenny and I realized I had a strong connection to the way they played and wrote.
Charles Lloyd was a great experience for me almost from the opposite point of view, because Charles gave me so much freedom. His compositions were usually pretty simple for the most part, except “Forest Flower” is really a tricky tune, and I think it’s his best tune. He just had a lot of these very open little tunes that didn’t have a lot of harmony or a lot of stuff to do on it, and so there was no instructions for me. I figured out a way to play behind him and he liked it. I found it a great experience and that came later in my life – I was already in my 60s. Maybe I was in my late 50s. Billy Higgins was the drummer at the time, and he was probably as old as Charles. Then we had Marc Johnson, who was the baby in the band – he was the youngest guy and he was already in his 40s. But I had a lot of freedom in that band. That band taught me how to use that free aspect of not being told what to do and just figuring it out. I loved Charles’ sound and the way he played. It was very natural for me to play with him. It didn’t feel like a hard gig – it immediately felt comfortable to me.
You’ve played with all of these giants and icons, and now do you feel like one of the giants yourself?
No, I never feel that way. I just feel like I’m a good musician who’s been around a long time. I’ve been really blessed by meeting Manfred Eicher at ECM and being able to have played all these years with all these tremendous players. I don’t see myself as anything other than a good guitar player who wants to get better and still has things to do. I never think about that aspect of it at all, but I know that there are people that are influenced by what I’ve done. They tell me and I’m really appreciative when people tell me things like that, but it kinda goes in one ear and out the other. I appreciate hearing it, but I don’t want to dwell on it, because it’s not that important to me.
What younger musicians do you listen to now? What more recent musicians have impressed you?
There’s so many good guitar players now. There’s Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mike Moreno, Peter Bernstein, who’s a little bit maybe older than some of those guys. Ben Monder, and this guy Gilad Hekselman – I’ve heard him play on Youtube, I’ve never heard him play live. Lage Lund – I did a recording with him and Peter Bernstein, a tribute to Jim Hall that came out about three months ago called Inspired. It was done under Artistshare, which is the label that Jim Hall was recording for before he passed away.
I’ve heard all these guys. Some of them live, but most of them on recordings. I don’t get a chance to go in [New York] and hang out and listen to music. I’m about an hour and fifteen minutes north of the city, so by the time I drive in and park the car and then come home, it’s a long trip for me, so I tend not to go and hear a lot of people live. Craig Taborn really impressed me. Chris Cheek, some of these young saxophone players. Chris Potter. There’s a few Chrises. There’s a lot of players that I’ve heard. If you told me their names, I would probably say, “Yes, I’ve heard them play,” or “No, I haven’t.” Some people you just don’t get around to hearing.
Compared to when I came up, the young musicians are better than we were. They’re more equipped. They’ve been around more music, they’ve been exposed to more music because of the internet and the speed of everything. They’re kind of like whiz kids. They learn and develop very fast. Whereas my generation learned more slowly and we developed slowly. I think that’s the big difference. They’re better than we were, and that’s good, because they should be. That means the music is getting better. I’m all for it, just as long as they don’t take away my gigs. That’s the nice thing about being older and established. They can’t really take away my gigs, because my gigs are mostly as a leader or with special projects like Gateway. There’s no way they can take that away from me.
You’ve already accomplished a huge amount in your career. What have you not done yet that you’d still like to do?
This is something a lot of jazz musicians always think about doing if you talk to them. I’d always like to record with a real orchestra, and I have, but not on my own project. I did a thing once with a composer named Vince Mendoza. We did a thing with the London Symphony. It featured Kenny Wheeler and me and a couple of other English musicians, and Mike Brecker was on it. But I did it live in a studio in London, and it was such a thrill to play with the orchestra – with the strings especially, just to hear the guitar with strings.
I think Manfred would be into it if he trusted the composer. He’d have to know his work. I did another project with Mendoza, and we wanted to use a small chamber orchestra, but Manfred didn’t want to spend the money at the time because he didn’t know Vince was such a good writer. So we wound up doing it with synthesizers. It’s a record called Animato. It came out 20 years ago. It’s a very nice record and we used Jon Christensen from Oslo to add a rhythmic input to it.
But what I would like to do would be with somebody – it wouldn’t have to be Vince, but I would think of him first – but somebody that could really integrate a small chamber orchestra around a guitar/bass/drums trio. We would play improvised sections and with the orchestra – but not a huge orchestra, maybe just like a chamber orchestra. Charlie Parker always wanted to record with strings and he finally got to do it, and I think a lot of jazz musicians have that hidden fantasy of recording with an orchestra. I’m no different. I would love to record with a small chamber orchestra but with a trio, so I could still play jazz and improvise. I’d have the bass and drums to support me in that, and I’d have the orchestra to color everything. That’s one thing I’d like to do.