JOHN ABERCROMBIE IS THE ELDER STATESMAN OF THE JAZZ guitar icons that came of age in the ’70s—a group that includes Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, and John Scofield. Roughly a decade their senior, Abercrombie was already pioneering jazz-rock fusion (playing with Dreams and Billy Cobham) while they were still hanging around his alma mater, Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music.
Yet having developed his love of bebop and swing while playing blues and standards on the road with Johnny “Hammond” Smith, the guitarist found his allegiance to fusion ambivalent at best. “Being a young musician, I wanted to be in on what was current, so I got a wah-wah pedal and a fuzz tone,” he says. “I couldn’t play bebop anymore, I had to play something that fit the music, but deep in my heart I wanted to play jazz-jazz, not fusion-jazz. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun, but it was also what you played at that time in order to work. People always talk about the art part of playing music, but you have to be realistic. If you are going to be a musician you have to make a living at it.”
Nevertheless, Abercrombie left his secure place in the world of fusion to take a chance with drummer Jack DeJohnette’s more “jazz-jazz”-oriented new band. “Meeting him was one of the turning points in my life,” says Abercrombie. “We played everything. We played the space-rock that he had invented with Miles, along with swing and standards. In addition to playing with a great drummer, I was playing music that I really wanted to play.”
Though Abercrombie found fusion lacking, he never abandoned it completely. “The odd thing was that elements of that music stayed in there: the effects, the intensity of it, maybe some of the straight eighthnote rhythms,” he says. “When I play a samba, or something with a straight eighthnote feel, part of me goes back to the way I used to play in the fusion days.”
New York City in the ’70s was a time of loft-jazz. Musicians gathered in converted industrial spaces to listen to the new sounds and jam. It was at one of these lofts that Abercrombie met ECM Records founder and producer Manfred Eicher, who asked him to record an album. The result was Timeless, a record that has proved to be just that, sounding as fresh today as when it was made in 1974. “That was the feeling that we had at the time,” recalls Abercrombie. “It sounded like very old music, like it could have come from Gregorian chant, yet it sounded very modern. I think I just said the word timeless, and Manfred said, ‘That’s a great title.’”
Timeless documents the beginnings of Abercrombie’s personal musical language— one that veered sharply away from both the testosterone-driven direction that fusion was taking, and the traditionalism purveyed by legions of L-5-toting beboppers. “My style started to change when I met people like Ralph Towner and Richie Beirach, who were writing very different songs than the II-V-I type,” says the guitarist. “Also, Wayne Shorter was writing all of these beautiful songs for Miles Davis’ group that were quite a departure from the standard tune format. I was very attracted to that, because it was more impressionistic. It was like my early attraction to the sound of the electric guitar—an attraction to a sound. I would hear one of Ralph Towner’s songs and try to imitate it, but it wouldn’t come out like Ralph, it would come out like my version of Ralph.”
One of the hallmarks of Abercrombie’s music is a constant sense of discovery. You get the feeling that you are not only discovering new roads while listening to him—but that he is discovering them at the same time, rather than just playing something he has worked out. “It is almost impossible for me to play things that I have practiced because I can never remember them,” he laughs. “I always tell students, ‘Practice is good, but sometimes things you practice won’t appear in your actual playing until much later. Keep practicing them and they will eventually emerge, but they may not be exactly what you practiced.’ Some people can work on something and then plug it in as they are performing. I think I could do that better when I was younger because I didn’t have any language at all. Hopefully you eventually stop doing that.”
Of course, even the most inventive players can’t entirely avoid repeating themselves. “It is not that I never play things that I have played before,” says Abercrombie. “If you follow a train of thought, and you are listening to what you played then answer it, or play a complementary phrase or melody, you will undoubtedly play something you have played before—but it comes out as a stream of consciousness. And some nights you play things that are totally different than what you expected. You let the music play you a little more. I am an ear and intuition player, and underneath all of that is everything I know: chords, scales, harmonies, and how to physically move on the guitar.”
More specifically, Abercrombie has developed methods to get where he wants to go. “Sometimes I am just trying to make melodies out of the chord tones, or within the scale,” he explains. “Sometimes I am taking shapes based on chord tones and moving those around, and other times I am trying to a hear a melody all the way through a set of chord changes.”
In addition to the seeking element in his playing, another signature of the guitarist’s music is an affinity for 3/4 waltz time—an attraction so strong, it led pianist Andy LaVerne to write a tune for him called “Waltz King.” “At Berklee, we used to listen to Bill Evans, who played a lot of waltzes,” explains Abercrombie. “I like that you can play 4/4 against 3/4. You can bend it a lot. It is a very pliable time signature. And it is also romantic. I like pretty things, and waltzes tend to be prettier than 4/4 tunes. I’ve found that I am always able to find some interesting subdivisions and be very lyrical on a 3/4 tune.”
Fall ‘09 was a banner season for Abercrombie fans. ECM released a fourth record by his quartet—featuring violinist Mark Feldman and drummer Joey Baron—as well as a new CD by reedman John Surman— Brewster’s Rooster [ECM], on which Abercrombie receives almost as much playing time as the leader.
Abercrombie’s own album, Wait Till You See Her, adds new bass player Thomas Morgan (replacing Marc Johnson), and departs from the previous three quartet outings with a mellower tone and a greater sense of structure. Though still skilled at stepping in and out of time and harmony at will, the band relies less on free playing on the new record. “The only tune that really delves into that is ‘Line Up,’ which is basically just an excuse to play free,” says Abercrombie. “It is a line that I wrote, but there is no structure other than the line itself. You make whatever you want of it, though it still goes through a lot of transitions. We play the line in unison, and then I go in and out of a swing feel. After I play the line again, Feldman comes in and plays solo violin, before Thomas plays a little pizzicato thing. We finish improvising freely in this pizzicato feel, and then play the line once more. We didn’t plan any of that, it just happened.”
Hearing the same tune during a gig at Manhattan’s Birdland confirms this spontaneity. Rather than a going to a pizzicato section, the band ended the tune by playing a slow, two-chord bluesy vamp, over which they then superimposed the tune’s thematic line.
“The rest of the record is relatively structured, though we play ‘Wait Till You See Her’ with no tempo,” explains Abercrombie. “That was the first time we played the tune, and it is just the four of us playing the song and groping around. Sometimes when you are just getting to know a tune you will play stuff that is more interesting and more musical than when you actually know it.”
Although still a Brian Moore Guitars endorser, Abercrombie employs a pair of Tele-style instruments for his gig with Surman. “One is hollow with F-holes and was built by Stefan Schottmüller, while the other is a solidbody neck-thru instrument with a maple fretboard that was built by Krzysztof Kania,” he says. “They worked well with Surman, because the band has such a thick sound that I needed something a little more transparent. My Brian Moore was just too dark.”
For his own gig, Abercrombie uses two different guitars, one of which is connected to an unusual blue box. “Peter Coura of Coura African Guitars designed the solidbody, which he calls the Massimara Fusion model,” explains Abercrombie. “It’s built in Africa from local woods, and there is a chip in the body of the guitar that picks up the natural wood sound. The blue box, called the Coura Realizer, allows you to mix the magnetic pickups together with this wooden sound to make a solidbody sound more like a bigger jazz guitar. The 335-style guitar is a Mercury model made by Rick McCurdy.”
Abercrombie still uses a Boss EQ pedal, primarily as a preamplifier, so he can reduce noise by keeping the main amp volume down. Current pedals include a pair made in Greece by Jam. “The WaterFall is a combination chorus and vibrato, and I combine both effects to get this kind of weird but pleasant slight out-of-tuneness,” he says. “The other box is a dual-stage distortion called the TubeDreamer+ that produces a very smooth, satisfying distortion that sounds like an extension of what I am already playing.”
At both gigs, Abercrombie’s sound was split into a Roland JC-120 and an old Polytone Mega-Brute using a Boss SE-50 multi-effects unit. When on the road he asks for JC-120s or Mesa/Boogies.
Abercrombie says he feels the same whether fronting his own band or working as a sideman with leaders such as Surman, Kenny Wheeler, Charles Lloyd, and Jan Garbarek, because he is primarily serving the music. “Having your own band is like wanting to have your cake and eat it too,” suggests the guitarist. “You want the control, but you also want to feel that you are just part of a band. I feel a little more responsibility when it is my name up front, but I am still only a sideman in my own band.”