In recognition of guitarist John Abercrombie’s 71st birthday, here’s an early edit of an interview that I conducted with him in 2012 for a Jazziz article in the Q&A format, framed around the release of his ECM CD Without A Song. Also of interest might be this earlier post of an uncut Blindfold Test that I conducted with Abercrombie for DownBeat in 2001.
For most of his half-century career as a professional improviser, John Abercrombie has been known, as he puts it, for “not playing jazz in its purest sense.” Indeed, the 68-year-old guitarist has presented predominantly original music during his 37 years as an ECM artist, most recently on four ambitious CDs in the ’00s by a working quartet on which he shares the front line with polymath violinist Mark Feldman. But on his 2012 ECM release, Within a Song, Abercrombie switches gears with a suite of covers and re-imagined standards that honor formative influences Sonny Rollins, Jim Hall, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Art Farmer. Master partners Joe Lovano (playing only tenor saxophone), bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron keep the flow modern and sustain a relaxed but unrelenting attitude of swing.
“It’s a throwback to a pure form of jazz that stopped in the ’60s, when so many influences came in that changed the music forever,” Abercrombie says. He didn’t need to add that he himself has been a game-changer, an instantly recognizable voice among peers and cognoscenti, a key figure in developing a guitar language that could assimilate the various streams that flooded the jazz playing field during the ’70s. He continues to push the envelope in multiple contexts — among them an organ trio with Nussbaum and Gary Versace; ongoing duo connections with pianists Marc Copland and Andy Laverne; and forthcoming work with Gateway, a collective trio with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette that has convened sporadically since 1975, always with spectacular results.
Midway through August, Abercrombie supported Within A Song with a week at Birdland, convening Lovano, Gress, and drummer Adam Nussbaum for the occasion. A few hours before taking the stage on night three, dressed in the blue workshirt and black jeans that were his evening’s attire, he spoke to Jazziz in the midtown club’s narrow dressing room.
TP: After a decade of writing original music for a working band, what makes this a propitious time to do what might be called an “audio-biography”?
JA: About five years ago, I presented to [ECM producer] Manfred Eicher the idea of a tribute to the Art Farmer Quartet of the ‘60s, which had Jim Hall, Steve Swallow when he still played upright bass, and a couple of drummers, including Pete LaRoca. Manfred thought the idea was fantastic, but things didn’t work out, and I put the whole thing on the shelf. A few years later, I Manfred emailed, asking if I’d ever thought about doing a tribute to someone, like Steve Kuhn had done on his Mostly Coltrane record for ECM with Lovano and Joey. This is very unlike Manfred, who has never been into tribute recordings. I thought about it, and presented the idea of doing something on a period of music, which he liked. If any person permeates the CD as an influence, it’s Jim Hall—he played with Sonny on “Without A Song” and “Where Are You,” with Art Farmer on “Some Time Ago,” and with Bill Evans on “Interplay.”
TP: In recent years, you’ve standards records with specially convened groups.
JA: I’ve done plenty of that kind of playing, but this was more specific. The Bridge just popped up at me. I play that record for my students in the composition class I teach. I tell them that it’s a composition—the solos are so formed, so thematic and developed. I say, “You couldn’t have written this; nobody could have written the way they improvised.” Improvising is composition, you know.
I first heard it in a record store when I was a kid, about 18 years old. Those were the days when the guy in the front of the store would play you a track, and he put on the first tune, which is “Without A Song.” I guess epiphany is only word for something that strikes you so strong. I didn’t know musically what was happening, but it sounded so perfect. I said, “I must know what this is and this is really important to me.” That was the strongest reaction I ever had to a piece of music—although Bill Evans always got to me, and I wore out Kind of Blue.
TP: Apart from your leader records for ECM, you’ve recorded as a sideman with so many artists—Enrico Rava, Dave Liebman, Colin Walcott, Ralph Towner, Kenny Wheeler, Barre Phillips, Charles Lloyd. Your sound—or different sounds at different stages—is very identified with ECM’s sonic image.
JA: Different sounds at different stages for sure. I hear some older things, and I don’t even know how I did them—a speedier, more technical kind of playing, as opposed to now. It sounds hard, a bit like “Guitar Hero” stuff. About 15 years ago, I stopped playing with a plectrum, which slowed me down somewhat. You can’t articulate as quickly with the thumb as you can with a pick, which gives you the attack and lets you jump around a lot quicker. I’d always fooled around with playing with my thumb, and I did it on a gig once with Kenny Wheeler. I liked the way it sounded, so I started to get it in the act more, switching between the thumb and the pick. Then I realized I should make a decision because the two sounds are so different, and it sounds too schizophrenic when you switch in mid-solo. Overall, I like the thumb for the warmth of the sound, and the fact that my actual flesh is on the string without a piece of plastic in between.
TP: How did you connect with Manfred Eicher?
JA: In 1970, my girlfriend and I moved from Boston to a little apartment on East 4th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. I started to meet people, and got a lot of calls to do little record dates. Enrico Rava had moved here, and in 1973, during a brief tour of Italy, we did a record called Katchapari. Somewhere along the line, Manfred heard it. We finally met through Ralph Towner—Manfred would bring a reel-to-reel tape to his apartment on Perry Street and say, “This is the new Eberhard Weber record, called Colors of Chloe.” “Who’s Eberhard Weber?” “Listen.” Then he’d put the tape on, and I’d hear orchestral music by a guy who had overdubbed all these cellos. I flipped out, because everything was so beautiful. Manfred told me he’d heard Katchapari and liked what I did. He asked, “Would you like to record for ECM?” I said that I would, but I didn’t have any original music. Manfred said, “Well, keep it in mind.” He kept hounding me.
I decided to go back to the thing I was most comfortable with. After Berklee, I worked a few years with Johnny Hammond Smith, who I made my first record with. Jan Hammer and I had been roommates in Boston, and I knew he could play anything on organ, and had the synthesizer. He played in a strip joint in Boston, and I’d run down and sit in with him before the strippers came on. I’d recently met Jack DeJohnette and was starting to play in some of his bands. I had a little cassette player with two little speakers. One day I started noodling, and came up with a couple of tunes.
TP: Were you putting this repertoire together with the idea that it was suiting the ECM sound?
JA: No. It was totally where I was at. I thought the record might have more of an organ trio feel, but I should have realized that Jan and Jack weren’t going to sound like Jack McDuff and Joe Dukes on drums. So whole record had a very different feel for the time, but it had nothing to do with what I thought ECM wanted—because I didn’t even really know what they wanted. I was very influenced by some things John McLaughlin had done with Mahavishnu years before, and with Miles on things like In A Silent Way. I wasn’t even sure Manfred would like it, but I took my chance. He loved all of it, the raucous stuff and the ballads. It was a magical recording.
TP: By this point, you were about 30, with a decade as an apprentice under your belt—the organ trios, Dreams, Chico Hamilton, Gato Barbieri, Rava, Billy Cobham. Can you describe your path to the sensibility you articulated on Timeless?
JA: When I went to Berklee, there was no Jazz-Rock. The two hadn’t merged yet. If you played a Rock or rhythm-and-blues gig, you probably were doing it for the money. Not that it wasn’t fun, but it was more like, oh, it’s a gig with a singer and they’re going to play some tune by Marvin Gaye or “Stormy Monday.” In Boston, I joined a rhythm-and-blues band called the Danny Wright Orchestra, with a singer named Erroll McDonald who sang Ray Charles tunes, but we also played jazz, like an arrangement of a Tadd Dameron tune. Danny introduced me to Johnny. I auditioned for him at this really funky club in Boston, and he liked me enough to give gave me the gig. I really was a jazz player at that period. I wasn’t a GOOD jazz player, but that’s all I played. I was actually making my living with Johnny on the chitlin’ circuit, playing standards and blues and some little cover tunes with guitar, organ and drums, and sometimes Houston Person playing tenor.
Everything was in upheaval then. People were taking acid. There was the Vietnam war and civil rights. Everybody was listening to Jimi Hendrix and all this Rock. The organ trio stuff was still my meat and potatoes, but I also liked some of the sounds I was hearing. So I got myself a distortion pedal (we used to call them fuzz tones) and a wah-wah pedal, moved to New York, and said, “Ok, I’m here—plug me in.” I went along with the times. I joined Dreams, with Randy and Mike Brecker and Billy Cobham and Barry Rogers, and they weren’t playing Jazz-jazz. They were playing Jazz-Rock, we used to call it.
After I met Rava, and started to go to Europe, and met Manfred, I started to get thrown in with people who played what they called Free Jazz, or very open kind of music. I didn’t have a lot of role models to play what was being asked of me. McLaughlin had been doing it early on, Coryell and other people had been experimenting, and and there were some wilder people like Sonny Sharrock and Pete Cosey, but there wasn’t a real language set up. So I had to figure things for myself. I grabbed onto every device I had in my arsenal—my knowledge of harmony and the guitar, the few little fuzztones or pieces of gear that I used at the time—and tried to fit in. When I’d play with Jack and Dave Holland, or some other players, I responded to what I was hearing around me, and let the sound of it all teach me what I was supposed to do. Luckily, my instincts were good, and all those years as an apprentice probably helped. My main objective was always to fit into situations, not so concerned about what my music was going to be like or if I had a specific voice. It was “How can I make this work?
TP: You’ve recorded with a number of bands for ECM—the quartet with Richie Beirach, George Mraz and Peter Donald; the trio with Marc Johnson and Peter Erskine; the organ trio with Dan Wall and Adam Nussbaum; more recently your quartet with Mark Feldman and Joey Baron, and a couple of bass players; also Gateway, with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. To what degree is a band a book of music, and to what degree is it a collection of personalities?
JA: That’s a good question. It’s more than just a book of music, for sure, but it’s also about what whatever repertoire you’re playing, whether someone else’s as with new band or all original music. A band needs to have an identity. Of course, the personalities who are playing it will give it what it needs. Sometimes cooperative bands where everyone writes a song don’t work as well because people’s ideas are so vastly different.
My first band was with Richie, George, and Peter Donald. George was one of my roommates in Boston. Peter lived in Cambridge, and we did jam sessions and gigs. I met Beirach in New York. We did Dave Liebman’s record, Sweet Hand, and there was a tune, “Dr. Faustus,” that had an open section for me to just go nuts. Every time I’d play a phrase and end up on a note, Beirach would always play the perfect chord underneath me. I said, “How do you this?” He said, “Man, I have perfect pitch.” The quartet was a harmonic band, very architecturally sound, almost like a Frank Lloyd Wright building. It was a wonderful band to play in, but I was looking for something more open, which I got with Marc and Peter. With them, I got immersed in the guitar synthesizer, which some people hated, but it inspired me to write a lot of different kinds of tunes. The end came at Catalina’s in Los Angeles. Back in the dressing room, Erskine said to me, “Are we not men? Do we really need all this other stuff to play music with?” I said, “I agree. Screw this synthesizer stuff. I’m going to whittle down my gear.” I kept one little box that did some sounds, and the rest of it was just guitar. No I’m synth-free. But if I speak to you in five years, I may want to get back into something like that. It keeps you interested. Sometimes just playing the guitar when there’s no one to play off of isn’t that interesting. With the synthesizer you could imagine you were a flutist or violinist or trumpet player, and you might phrase differently, although the sounds were synthetic, never like real instruments.
TP: Has Manfred Eicher ever discouraged you from going in a particular direction?
JA: I had a band when I was living in San Francisco that was mostly L.A.-based. You couldn’t ask for better musicians. I spent a lot of time writing music for them—the only way I can describe it is that it had a kind of optimistic, brighter sound, a slightly more poppish feel. I sent a tape to Manfred and anxiously awaited his response. When he finally called, he said, “John, do you really want to go in this younger direction?” Meaning the music sounded kind of young. More Pat Metheny-influenced. Maybe I was being influenced by hearing Pat.
TP: Might all these projects have existed had you not had a consistent label over all these years?
JA: Probably not, no.
TP: I don’t know whether you’ll accept the idea, but let’s go by the supposition that each of these different bands fits in one way or another into the prevailing currents or zeitgeist, whatever you want to call it, of the time in which they were made.
TP: How does this band, this approach fit into what’s going on now?
JA: If you look at everything else that’s going on around, you probably don’t see a lot of it. Of course, lots of people are still playing standard tunes. But the direction of the younger musicians has very little to do with this. They’re doing original compositions, which are harmonically much different than these kind of tunes, and they seem to be experimenting with a lot of very different meters. I hate to use the word “nostalgia,” because I don’t look at it that way, but this kind of straight-up jazz album doesn’t really fit with what’s going on in a lot of ways. You could look at the last few things I did with Mark Feldman and that group, which I consider to be modern jazz, but people might say think it sounds more like chamber music or classical music because of the violin. and the sound of it.
Manfred actually sent me an email not long ago about how much he liked the record, something like, “I think this recording is really needed at this time.” I’m trying to find the right word for it. It’s a tribute to part of the history of jazz. It’s an interpretation. It’s paying homage. It’s coming full circle for sure, starting this way and then going off in all these different places, and then coming back and saying, “well, this really is home, in a way.” Who says you can never go home again? Thomas Wolfe? But in a way, you do go home, though home looks different. You don’t want to go back to the same little room you were in with the pennants on the wall and your mother yelling at you to get up, it’s time for breakfast, you’ve got to get to school, and stop that noise, and get out of the bathroom; let someone else in there once in awhile—we only had one bathroom in the house. But this is a way of going to the musical home.
TP: Do you have any sense of your impact or position in the timeline of guitar playing in this idiom? You’re older than Metheny or Mike Stern or Bill Frisell or John Scofield, who are people you tend to get lumped with, and younger than Grant Green or Jim Hall or Wes Montgomery. So if we’re to look at you in a third-person way, are you a transitional figure?
JA: I’ve thought about it, but I don’t really give it much thought. I’m like a guitar early baby boomer. I was born in ‘44, which means that instead of growing up listening to the Beatles, I grew up listening to Bill Haley and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. The timeframe when you grow up makes an impact on you. I had first-hand exposure to Monk and Coltrane and Sonny and Miles, a little more direct connection to that than the guys you mentioned. Then, too, I was around in the late ‘60s, when everything exploded—everybody wearing Indian shirts and smoking hash and trying to play different kinds of music. I’m part of the generation that was like, “We don’t want to play bebop; let’s get psychedelic; let’s tune in, drop out.” These other guys grew up after that. So maybe I am some sort of transitional object!
I do know that I opened doors when I started playing this more open-ended stuff in the ‘70s. No other guitar player had really been doing it as visibly as I did, when I was traveling around the world. Sonny Sharrock and Pete Cosey were a little more out than I was. I was playing free with a lot of structural knowledge. I’d come up playing standard tunes and blues, so I knew all these forms. I wasn’t coming out of a vacuum. I had all this jazz background, and then I was thrown into all of this. Can you make music out of this? Can you survive in this oddball environment where there’s no guidelines? I like to think that guitar players might have thought, “wow, that’s pretty free, but it doesn’t sound out there completely; it sounds like it’s coming from someplace.” That’s always been what I like to do. When I play, I kind of listen to myself as if I’m trying to develop something. In a band like this, my playing is a little more inside, for the most part, because of the structures of the pieces. But sometimes when I play with other bands, like Feldman, we get into complete zones of abstraction that can go on for quite a while. I’m very comfortable in that, and I like to experience that.
So I’m a little more multi-kulti in a sense. But as I get older, this full circle thing becomes kind of very important to me. I’ve been through all these weird stages of playing jazz-rock, playing free, trying to incorporate Indian and ethnic influences in the music, using synthesizers. But at the same time I’m still playing “Stella By Starlight.” It’s odd. And I still like to do all this stuff—except for the synthesizers.
[END OF CONVERSATION]