John Abercrombie’s Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test

It’s John Abercrombie’s birthday, giving me an excuse to post the complete proceedings of a Blindfold Test I conducted with him about ten years ago.  His responses were terrific.

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John Abercrombie Blindfold Test (Raw Copy):

1.    James Blood Ulmer, “Sphinx” (from MUSIC SPEAKS LOUDER THAN WORDS, DIW/Koch, 1995/1997) (James Blood Ulmer, g.; Calvin Jones, b.; Rashied Ali, d.) – (5 stars)

I love the feel of this piece.  It reminds me a little bit of something from sort of semi Sonny Sharrock, but not really.  It could be one of these Albert Ayler tunes or something like that, something in that vein.  It sounds like somebody who’s playing with their thumb a little bit, but it’s not Wes!  It doesn’t really sound like him, I didn’t know he played anything this out, but it could be… Could it be Kevin Eubanks?  It sounds too harmonically oriented to be Sonny Sharrock, but that was still my first take on it.  It still could even be somebody like that, but… James Blood?  Wow!  This is great.  I don’t know that tune.  I have to get this.  I’ve heard some other stuff by Blood and I liked it.  I have some of this stuff where he was singing that I enjoyed, but I’ll have to get this.  This definitely sounds very hip to me.  Very open.  And it’s kind of funny; that’s why I thought it was Sonny Sharrock, because of some of the similarities.  He sounds to me more harmonic.  I hear more harmonic information in his playing.  It’s cool.  And I think he does sort of play with his thumb a little bit, because it’s got a little bit of that feel.  It’s plucky.  He chokes the notes a little bit, so it… I’ll give this 5 stars.  I still like it. [AFTER] Now that you tell me it was Rashied Ali, it makes total sense, because I played with him once, and he has a great way of playing a sort of open music.  you really feel like they’re playing on a form or something.  It really has a great swing, a pulse to it.  It’s not just free.  I think that’s what makes it work.  That’s what makes everything sound so great.

2.    Gerardo Nunez, “Calima” (from CALIMA, Alula, 1998) (Nunez, guitar; Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, b; Arto Tuncboyaci, d) – (4 stars)

An acoustic guitar.  Two players or it’s overdubbed.  I hear other parts.  That first part with just the guitar overdubs was just impeccable technique, whoever it is.  I mean, it’s almost perfect technically.  But I can’t tell from that who it is.  I might know, not by the content of what he’s playing, but just somebody playing the guitar that well.  This sounds like a Spanish Classical piece.  I’ll make a stab.  It’s not that guy Fareed Haque, is it?  Fareed is so technically proficient, that that’s what this kind of reminded me of.  The little bit I’ve heard him play Classical stuff, he has that kind of flawless technique.  I like it.  The beginning was beautiful, and this has a nice rhythm feel.  The approach of the guitar player… It sounds like everything’s almost kind of written, or it’s things you would include in a Classical or a Flamenco technique.  But it’s not a famous Flamenco player, I don’t think.  Now you’ve piqued my interest.  It’s not Paco, is it?  I’ve heard Paco do things that are kind of like this, with hand drums and of course that kind of technique is akin to a Flamenco player.  So it’s definitely somebody Spanish.  I can’t guess.  It’s very nice, but I can’t figure out who it is.  I’ll give it 4 stars for the really great feel.  Flawless guitar technique.  Wow.

3.    Jim Hall-Dave Holland, “End The Beguine” (from JIM HALL & BASSES, Telarc, 2001) (Hall, g; Holland, b) – (3-1/2 stars)

The bass player almost sounds like it could be Dave Holland, playing one of his little… But it’s probably not.  The only reason I mentioned Dave Holland (and I don’t think it’s Dave) is because I’ve played little pieces with Dave where it has this kind of feel.  Dave writes some of these little Indianesque-sounding, Arabian… The bass player does sound like he has some of Dave’s rhythmic concept, but I don’t know who… [Why don’t you think it’s Dave?] I don’t know.  I have to listen more.  I have to hear him solo to really know.  [Can you glean anything from the guitar player?] I’m not gleaning well right now.  It’s someone who’s Dave-like, but I don’t think it’s Dave.  The sound is not quite what I’m used to hearing; Dave has a bigger sound.  But then, he could be recorded differently.  And Dave usually sounds a little punchier.  And also Dave has certain rhythmic phrases that he does, because I’ve played with him so much, and I didn’t hear any of those.  But it does have an aura of that. It’s Dave?  Wow.  The guitar sounds like a 12-string.  I thought maybe it was Gismonti playing the 12-string, but I don’t think he and Dave ever played together. But the opening thing didn’t sound anything like something Gismonti would play.  That sounded more jazzy.  This is definitely somebody who’s a jazz player of sorts.  I know it’s not Ralph Towner, because it’s not good enough to be Ralph Towner playing 12-string. [LAUGHS] It’s good, but it’s not like what Ralph would play.  I don’t know if he started out on this instrument.  Did he change… No, there it is.  It’s all the same instrument.  I’m not going to get it. Can you give me a hint? [You’re going to feel bad if you don’t know who it is.] Oh, I think I know who it is now.  See, that’s all you had to say.  It’s Jim.  This sounds so different than what I’m used to hearing Jim play.  Harmonically and rhythmically, some of the chords… Now it does make sense that it’s Jim to me.  But at first it didn’t.  Maybe I still have Blood’s music in my head.  Because the opening, the first reading of the opening sounded a little Delta-like.  I got Dave, though.  I was pretty sure.  This is that album where Jim plays all the different duets.  I haven’t heard it.  Not that I have to, but I’ve never heard Jim play a 12-string guitar.  It’s not the instrument he normally would play.  It’s not the most interesting thing I’ve heard Jim do, but it’s still good, and I needed a hint from you to actually figure out who it was, although I was pretty good about Dave.  3-1/2 stars.  I think if I had heard him play on an electric guitar, with his more rounded tone and the tone I’m used to, playing a similar thing, I would have probably nailed it.  But like you said, it was hearing him play that instrument.

4.    Arsenio Rodriguez, “Rhapsodia del Maravilloso” (from Sabu, PALO CONGO, Blue Note, 1957/1999) (Rodriguez, guitar; “Sabu” L. Martinez, Raul Travieso, Israel Travieso, Ray Romero, congas; Ernesto Baro, bass) – (5 stars)

That’s a different instrument, too.  That’s either a 12-string or a tres.  A tres.  I got it.  That’s not Arsenio Rodriguez, is it?  I love this stuff.  The main reason I know about him, when I used to work years ago in a band called Dreams, was a trombone player who passed away named Barry Rogers, and Barry’s second instrument was the tres.  He used to play trombone and tres with a lot of the Latin bands, and he played me some Arsenio Rodriguez and said this was the cat.  This is more in the context of a rhythm section, but the bass player is very strongly prominent here, too.  This sounds not unlike the duet with Jim Hall and Dave Holland, in a strange way, because the tres is a double-stringed kind of instrument, if I’m not mistaken.  This gets 5 stars.  I’m not surprised I got it. But once I figured out what the instrument was… I know Wes didn’t record on tres!  I can make jokes.  But I know that other people didn’t, so it has to be either the heavyweight guy or somebody I didn’t know.  Beautiful music.

5.    Nels Cline-Gregg Bendian, “Mars” (from INTERSTELLAR SPACE, Atavistic, 1999) (Cline, el.g; Bendian, drums) – (3 stars)

Definitely sounds like a real free electric guitar player, but somebody with a lot of chops.  I don’t recognize… Wow.  Twisted.  I like it.  I can’t tell from the content of what he’s playing who it is. [Do you have any idea of what it is they’re playing?] I may know it.  I’ll listen a little bit more.  That part sounds like a tune!  There are a lot of guys I haven’t heard maybe that much.  Could it be Vernon Reid?  I don’t know.  It’s too jazzy to be Vernon.  Vernon would be more like Hendrix and Rock.  This has that tone, but it’s obviously somebody who’s played… [It’s a West Coast player.] Now I know who it is.  Nels Cline.  Nels is the only guy I know on the West Coast guitar-wise who would play something that might sound like this.  It sounds great.  For my ears there could be a little more dynamics, but I’m not playing it.  It maintains a real high density level at all times.  Which I enjoy playing more than I enjoy listening to, I think.  But I like it.  It’s definitely got some harmonic knowledge and some lines that he’s using… I’ll give it 3 stars. [This is “Mars” from INTERSTELLAR SPACE] Oh, I would never get that!

6.    David Fiuczynski, “Down Under” (from CHARTBUSTERS, Hip-Bop, 1995) (Fiuczynski, guitar; Dr. Lonnie Smith, organ; Lenny White, drums) – (4 stars)

Nice guitar tone.  I like the tone.  It’s over-driven, but in a nice sort of sweet way.  I like that. That part sounded like something Scofield would play.  Amazing technique.  All these lines here are pure Scofield.  Pretty pure.  But the other stuff isn’t.  He’s a funny composite of things, real blues-drenched, a great tone, some real heavy… Those lines didn’t sound… Super slinky technique.  Amazing.  Some of it sounds pretty original.  He definitely sounds like a pastiche of a lot of different players, but amazing control.  This sounds like Larry Young almost.  Dr. Lonnie.  I could tell by these sort of broken arpeggiated things he does that kind of go across the keys.  That’s beautiful.  Now I can guess on the guitar player, and it may be a wrong guess.  Is it Paul Bollenbeck?  I’ve heard Paul play things that are technically like speed of light.  This guy’s got speed-of-light technique.  Definitely 4 stars. [AFTER] Fiuczynski!  He sounds amazing.  He really does.  It’s amazing technique.  Great lines.  Some of them directly culled from the Scofield vocabulary.  Sounds great.  Like I say, he’s a pastiche of many things.  But he sure has picked some good things to put in his trick bag.

7.    Russell Malone, “Heartstrings” (from HEARTSTRINGS, Verve, 2001) (Russell Malone, g.; Kenny Barron, p.; Christian McBride, b; Jeff Watts, d.; strings; arr. Johnny Mandel) – (4-1/2 stars)

Another great guitar sound.  I like this sound.  This sounds a little more familiar to me.  I think I know who this is.  Is it Russell Malone?  I heard this actually driving in a car one time, and I was so taken with the pretty sound he got… It really is a lovely sound.  I distinctly remember it.  When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure who it was, so it was like in a blindfold test.  I was driving my car waiting for the announcer, and I was kind of going through my mind, and Russell’s name was one of the names that popped into my head.  I don’t know his playing that well.  I’ve only heard him on a couple of things, but this is the best thing I’ve heard him do with his tone.  His solo is very bluesy, more than I’m used to hearing him play.  Maybe he’s more of a bluesy player than I realize.  I haven’t checked him out that much.  Isn’t he from Georgia?  I thought the solo was really good.  The time when I did hear this record in my car, this is exactly the tune I heard, and I was struck not only by the sound, but by some really interesting parts in the solo that I wasn’t expecting.  Because the solo has kind of a very laid-back, bluesy feel, and all of a sudden there’s these oddball notes and a couple of funny phrases.  So I thought it was a very good solo, well-constructed and a beautiful tone.  I’ll give it 4-1/2.

8.    Simon Shaheen, “Blue Flame” (from BLUE FLAME, 2001, Ark-21) (Simon Shaheen, oud; Bassam Saba, nay & fl.; Billy Drewes, ss; Adam Rodgers, ag; Francois Moutin, b; Lorenzo Martinez, bongos; Steve Sheehan, caxixi, brushes, cymbals, diembe, durbakka; Jamie Haddad, hadjira drum, cymbals, hadgini) – (5 stars)

It’s an oud.  There’s a couple of oud players I’ve heard, and one is the guy who records… I’ve heard a few.  I brought back some music from Istanbul.  But I can never pronounce this guy’s name.  Isn’t this Rabih… No?  Then maybe I don’t know who this person is.  There’s a couple of guys I used to listen to.  There’s a guy who records for ECM, Anwar, but he wouldn’t play this kind of stuff. This is more rhythmic; he’s more floaty, from what I’ve heard.  Then there’s the guy that used to make the records for Enja years ago, Rabih ..(?).. This is what it reminds me of.  I like the solo a lot, maybe more than the composition.  I like the feel of the composition, but I like the sound of the solo.  I like this part.  It’s really open. It’s almost like a jazz player playing oud.  But it’s not.  It’s an oud player playing oud.  It’s got a looseness to it, though.  Makes me want to play with a pick again, hearing some of these fast lines.  The solo was absolutely beautiful with the rhythm section.  It’s so loose.  It sounds like they’re playing in 5/4.  It takes me a while to figure out sometimes what the odd time signature is, but I’m pretty sure it was 5, which is a very hard time signature to play in — at least for me.  But it was so loose and so effortless.  And the sound of the oud, it’s like one of my favorite instruments.  It almost sounds like somebody took a classical guitar and tuned it down real low so the strings are really elastic.  It’s really one of the warmest instruments.  But this guy, I’m sorry I didn’t know him.  Now I’ll have to go and listen more to him.  5 stars.  It’s totally happening.  I wish I knew him.  Now I will know.

9.    Joe Morris, “Manipulatives” (from UNDERTHRU, Omnitone, 1999) (Morris, guitar; Mat Maneri, violin; Chris Lightcap, b.; Gerald Cleaver, d) – (3 stars)

This almost reminds me of something I did years ago with Barre Phillips and John Surman and Stu Martin.  I played on a couple of tunes on Barre’s record.  The rhythm section sounded like this, kind of in time but really kind of wacky.  This is kind of how I played back then!  It’s interesting, but I wish it was a little more cohesive somehow.  The rhythm section seems to be almost overpowering the soloist a bit.  It also could be the mix.  If you heard these guys play live, maybe it would be the opposite, or maybe it’s perfectly balanced, but it sounds a little more… The thing about this kind of playing to me is… Which is what I liked more about, say, the Blood Ulmer thing.  Even though that was rambling and a little wacky, it’s clear somehow.  It has a real cohesiveness.  This doesn’t have that.  This feels scattered, kind of.  It’s not my most favorite stuff.  It’s probably me!  I have no idea who he is.  I could make an educated guess. Joe Morris.  Wow!  I’m a good educated guesser.  I like this, but for me it lacks the cohesiveness of the Blood Ulmer thing or maybe even the Nels Cline thing you played me.  It’s in that same genre.  Well, my band can no doubt at times sound like this!  It sounds more balanced during the violin solo in terms of the actual sonic density of it.  This is another kind of music that maybe I like to play a little more than actually sit down and listen to it.  But because I play this way, I can appreciate it.  It’s fun to play this way and they sound good.  My educated guess for the violin player is Maneri.  But I don’t know him.  He sounds good.  Now the music is starting to gel for me.  Even though it’s more dense, it sounds better now.  3 stars. I like what they’re trying to do, but it doesn’t sound as cohesive as some of the other stuff to me.

10.    Kurt Rosenwinkel, “A Life Unfolds” (from THE NEXT STEP, Verve, 2000) (Rosenwinkel, guitar; Mark Turner, ts; Ben Street, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums) – (5 stars)

I’ve got to know this.  It’s probably a 7-string guitar.  Very nice.  Again, sometimes I go for the tone first.  Even if I’m not trying to figure out who it, almost all the players… Actually, everybody you played me today has a good tone, in their own way.  They’re all different, too.  Every one of them had a completely different approach to the tone of the guitar.  This sounds so familiar to me.  It’s a very nice composition.  It’s beautiful.  I think I know who this is.  I think it’s Kurt Rosenwinkel.  I know this.  This is from his second CD.  This is gorgeous.  I remember when bought this CD, and I liked the whole CD, but I remember when I got to this tune, I played it three or four times.  I had to hear it that many times.  This guy has got something that’s different.  I don’t know what the tuning is.  He’s definitely got the guitar retuned on the bottom on some lower strings.  You can hear them… A very clear but warm tone.  Again, I’m attracted to the tone, but he also is a very fluid, melodic player — lyrical, let’s say.  He also sings when he plays.  When I’ve heard him, he sings these little falsetto things.  Sometimes he’ll actually sing the lines, and he’s not just playing some blues ideas.  He’s playing some complicated lines and he sings with it.  So the response to that is he actually hears what he plays!  It’s amazing.  This is a great composition.  5 stars all the way.  Playing, composition…this is great.

11.    St. Germain, “Montego Bay Spleen” (from TOURIST, Blue Note, 2000) (Ernest Ranglin, g.; Ludovic Navarre, conductor; Alexandre Destrez, keyboards; Idresse Diop, talking drum; Carneiro, percussion) – (3 stars)

Nice groove, nice atmosphere.  It’s hard for me to tell who the guitar player is.  The actual guitar playing sounds a little more mainstream than I thought it would sound hearing the rhythm.  I thought the guitar player might play further out, but this is more in playing.  Very sparse.  He’s not playing a lot.  Sure it’s not one of my records?  No… What the hell was that?  That sounded like an edit.  I couldn’t tell; it was so strange. It’s strange, because most of what he’s playing is kind of straight, and then when he played these quirky lines, it didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of what he was playing.  This is a hard one to even make an educated guess at.  The tone is like a jazz guitar tone, a sort of brighter sound.  It’s not my favorite; I like a darker sound.  Well, that’s HIS sound.  I shouldn’t comment. But it sounds like a big guitar with sort of a bright sound, like a big jazz box — or at least a medium-size jazz box.  This one completely stumps me. 3 stars. Ernest Ranglin!  Sorry.  There’s no way I could get it.  I know the name.  Is he from Jamaica?

12.    Sylvain Luc & Bireli Lagrene, “Stompin’ At The Savoy” (from DUET, Dreyfuss, 1999) (Sylvain Luc, Bireli Lagrene, guitars) – (4 stars)

Acoustic guitar duo.  Wow, he’s so astute!  I like the way they’re breaking it up. The one guy is playing almost like a percussion instrument, tapping.  The guy playing the solo sounds very blues-like.  Good blues player.  Mmm!  I like this guitar player a lot.  Whoo!  I want to steal some of his lines.  Impeccable kind of technique, but very bluesy at the same time.  I mean, he’s not like somebody who I’d all of a sudden go, “Oh, that’s Wes or Kenny or Sco or Bill Frisell or Grant Green.”  A lot of this kind of playing… I think it’s great.  I totally admire it, and think it’s fantastic.  But it doesn’t have as much of an instantly identifiable thing.  It’s like amazingly great guitar playing.  Is this the second guy playing now?  I can’t tell.  I think maybe it’s the second guy.  It almost sounds like something I’ve heard before, but I can’t put my finger on it.  I mean, it’s “Stompin’ At The Savoy.”  I know the tune, but I don’t know the… Some of the other things you played me, I might know the player but not the tune.  Here I know the tune but not the players.  Is it Bireli Lagrene?  Yeah, and there’s another guy on this.  I’ve heard this before.  I think this is the other guy playing, but I can’t remember who it is.  Sylvain Luc.  Okay.  I may even have this.  It’s amazing playing. I’ll give it 4 stars because it maybe didn’t sound as original as some of the other things, but man, I wish I had those chops.

13.    Derek Bailey-John Butcher, “High Vortex” (from VORTICES AND ANGELS, Emanem, 1992/2001) (Bailey, guitar; Butcher, ss) – (4 stars)

Sounds like my train is here!  I’d better run and get to the platform.  It’s the 5:07; it’s in early.  I’m trying to figure out if the instrument on the right is actually a guitar, whether it’s processed, or if the bass is being bowed… Derek Bailey?  It’s a horn.  Is it a horn?  I can’t tell. Soprano saxophone?  Then maybe it’s somebody like Evan Parker.  No?  Somebody whose name I probably know, but wouldn’t be able to… [He’s English] I figured he’d be a gentleman.  I’m sure when I hear his name, I’ll know it.  I may even have played with the guy, because I’ve played with some English musicians.  This is the kind of thing that unless you really listen to this music a lot, it would be hard to tell.  But it’s instantly identifiable as Derek Bailey…because he’s instantly identifiable! [LAUGHS] It’s the least guitar-like in terms of what most of the world thinks of as guitar playing, but I knew who it was pretty quickly, whereas some of the other things I wouldn’t know, especially when it’s amazing feats of technique.  I’m impressed with that.  But I know who he is when I hear him.  So that’s kind of an interesting take on it all — style or being able to recognize somebody, even if it’s just abstract, in comparison to what you played before. I’m really nice today.  I’ll give it 4 stars.  I like it.  He sustains a mood that’s kind of interesting. It’s like free playing that’s sort of… You can go on for a long time, because the density is not so dense as a couple of the other things you played for me, that are hard to listen to.  It’s very quiet, it’s almost chamber-like, so you can listen to it and get inside it.

14.    Mark Elf, “Cheek To Cheek” (from DREAM STEPPIN’, Jen-Bay, 2002) (Elf, guitar; Neal Miner, b; Lewis Nash, d.) – (3 stars)

“Cheek to Cheek.”  Again, I know the tune.  We’ll see if I know the player.  But this sounds like somebody, just from the outset, who’s a real traditionalist.  Nice-a feel, like Lawrence Welk used to say.  They’ve got a good feeling.  This could be a lot of different people.  Again, it’s not one of the major guys that I grew up listening to.  It’s not Tal or Jimmy Raney, but it has that kind of sound.  It sounds like a more modern recording.  Nice.  It’s someone who kind of bridges.. They’re a bebopper, but they’ve also got a swing kind of feel to it.  Is it somebody like Howard Alden?  It’s great playing.  I just don’t know… It could be several different people.  That’s why I mentioned Howard.  But yeah, this is maybe a little more bebop than Howard, a little more Howard.  This has a little bit of that swing feel.  He loves the eighth note, and he manages to play just about every one.  There’s a little space.  It’s not somebody like Cal Collins, is it?  There’s a lot of these guys whose playing I’m sort of familiar with, but I don’t really know them that well. [He’s not a Concord artist] Then I wouldn’t know him.  If it’s not ECM or Concord, I’m screwed.  It’s none of the guys I really know.  And I don’t think it’s someone like Bucky Pizzarelli, because he doesn’t play this many lines.  It’s not someone I know.  It’s not Jack Wilkins.  That’s a modern voicing.  Wow!  It’s got me stumped.  I don’t recognize the bass player and drummer particularly.  Everybody is good, but nothing is grabbing me.  It’s funny, he sort of ends with something a little more modern, a little harmonically different.  The other playing was pretty inside, in a way.  It’s very good, but it didn’t strike a bell with me.  3 stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar, John Abercrombie

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