Category Archives: John Abercrombie

For John Abercrombie’s 71st Birthday, An Interview From 2012

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.

JA: Ok.

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.


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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