John Abercrombie

December 7, 2009

BELIEVE IT—John Abercrombie is one of the hippest new voices in jazz guitar. Never mind that he has been a world-renowned player for 35 years, has released numerous solo albums and duo projects with Ralph Towner, and has been a member of an incendiary trio with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. With his current quartet—featuring drummer Joey Baron, bassist Marc Johnson, and violinist Marc Feldman—the 63-year-old Berklee Distinguished Alumni Award winner and Purchase College faculty member infuses his playing with the passion, fire, and sense of purpose of a young lion with something to prove.

“What’s inspiring about this quartet is the instrumentation,” says Abercrombie. “Except for the drums, it’s all string instruments. Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt are obviously the paradigm for a guitar and violin combo in jazz, but we could never replicate what they did, so we’re taking things in our own direction. Marc is a fine soloist in his own right, but he’s also able to invent counterpoints or exotic-sounding drones behind what I’m playing. He’s constantly pushing me into new territory.”

The group’s third release, The Third Quartet [ECM], marries two of Abercrombie’s musical passions—saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic linear freedom and pianist Bill Evans’ lush harmonic re-invention—with the guitarist’s own innovative improvisational voice.

What’s going on in the tune “Banshee”? Is that completely improvised?
It’s actually based on a melody with four separate phrases—the first three diatonic, the last one chromatic—in the tonal centers of D minor and G minor, but there’s no set rhythmic or harmonic structure. Joey Baron is playing a fast jazz pulse underneath, but the melody isn’t necessarily played in time. I take each of the four phrases, and I improvise on them at will. For example, I start off tonally, then I begin adding major 7ths, and b5s to the D minor. I also play around with a Db triad, which creates a diminished sound over the D minor. My rhythmic phrasing is based on interaction with Joey. He’ll throw out these little motifs that I’ll pick up and build on, and vice-versa.

Are all the tunes on The Third Quartet essentially free jazz?
No, but they all have varying degrees of structure. “Number 9” is a nine-measure long set harmonic progression played very rubato. We’re not counting time as much as we are going phrase to phrase, but the improvisation is over a specific series of chords. “Vingt Six” is totally structured. It’s kind of classical sounding, because we voice the 3rd as the bass note on most of the triads. Mark Feldman’s violin solo isn’t played in time, but when I solo, the drums and bass enter, and I’m playing over a slow waltz tempo. Most of the phrases are five bars long, so they’re a bit tricky to follow, but they are in time.

You mentioned Joey Baron being the catalyst for many of your improvisational rhythmic motifs. How would you compare his influence on your playing to Jack DeJohnette’s or Billy Cobham’s?
They’re all amazing drummers, but they’re also all completely different. Billy is a virtuoso. We played high-energy fusion, and I phrased more evenly with him. I really locked in with the pocket of his time. Jack was the complete reverse. He was so spacious and abstract that you couldn’t always be sure where his downbeat was. I found myself playing a lot sparser, and having to listen and react to what he was doing. Joey falls in the middle. He has complete command of the instrument, and is equally at home with open tunes or more structured ones. He’s great at playing what I call “pulse music”—keeping the rhythm flowing, but not necessarily marking every downbeat. It’s very similar to what the old blues singers would do. Sometimes, rather than playing a 12-bar blues, they’d shorten or elongate phrases as it suited them, and wind up with, say, a nine-and-a-half-bar blues. But the music still had a steady underlying pulse.

I’m assuming the song “Elvin” is an homage to the late (John Coltrane drummer and noted bandleader) Elvin Jones?
Absolutely. The melody and harmonic structure aren’t particularly in his style, but the rhythmic feel is trademark Elvin. It’s a slow four with these underpinning rolling triplets that keep the energy going. As I was writing the piece, I imagined his drumming underneath it. I never got to play with Elvin, but if I could jam with anybody from any era, he’d be first on my wish list.

Because so much of your playing is geared toward group interaction, how do you instruct your students to practice by themselves?
I advise my students to transcribe solos by the great improvisers as a way of learning the language of jazz. You need some generic lines—just like if you’re learning German you have to be able to say “good morning” in German. But as you get better at the language, you get away from just saying things you’ve memorized, and start having actual conversations. A good exercise is to study someone else’s line to see how it works, then try to re-write it your own way. Another instructive thing is to take a standard tune, and just improvise quarter notes or half notes over it. Then, record yourself playing through the tune, listen to the results, and see which notes work and which don’t, and figure out why. This will guide you towards better note choices. Ultimately, you want to be able to spontaneously take the harmonic information you have—the chords, the extensions, the approach notes, etc.—and craft an interesting, flowing, and meaningful melody line.

What’s in your current rig?
Essentially, it’s the same stuff I’ve been using for the past 15 years. My main guitar is a custom Brian Moore DC/1P. It’s essentially a thin solidbody, but it has f-holes that give it a certain amount of openness. I use a Boss SE-50 for delay, reverb, and chorus, and I split the signal into two amps. At home and on record, I use an old Polytone Mini-Brute and a Roland JC-77. Live, I usually request a Roland and a Mesa/Boogie. I also have a Fulltone Full-Drive and an Ernie Ball volume pedal, but a key to my sound is a Boss GE-7 Graphic EQ that I use as a pre-amp. I set the volume on my amps low, and the volume on the EQ high, so I still get a lot of level out of the amps, but with less noise. (Originally published July 2007)

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