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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

John Abercrombie 1944 - 2017

By Stef

Yesterday, guitarist John Abercrombie passed away at the age of seventy-two. He is one of those musicians who gave my life flavour. How many hours have I not listened to his albums, surprised and excited by his very unique guitar sound? He himself is the musician who could be central to a composition but at the same time he could also take a step back and be as effective in giving color to a piece from the background, interjecting his soft and subdued tones, with precision.

I got to know him from his early Timeless album, released on ECM in 1974, with Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette, a "fusion" album that dragged me into the universe of ECM and consecutively to jazz and free jazz. Despite the quality of the album, his fusion sound (think McLaughlin or Jeff Beck) soon made place for his soft-toned and unaltered playing, mostly on guitar, but sometimes on electric mandolin. His collaboration with Jack DeJohnette's New Directions in 1978 was another new listening experience for me, and opened even more doors to his playing: nervous, jubilant, bluesy and always subdued and precise, reaching the right accent and colour to make the overall sound whole and complete, and interesting.

I listened with fascination to his collaborations with Gateway, a super trio with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. It was jazz of a different kind, raw and polished at the same time, authentic and well-balanced, reflective and dynamic, with three musicians who understand each other. A great success, that was repeated later with Gateway 2 and the Homecoming albums.

Add Colin Walcott on sitar to this trio and you get the "new age" beautiful sound of Cloud Dance and Grazing Dreams with Don Cherry, soft-spoken and meditative, intense and beyond any genres, but of high quality and the interaction of sitar and guitar has never been as good as on this album, primarily because of the players' mutual respect, subtle understandings and accuracy in creating their unique sound.

Then listen to Eventyr with Jan Garbarek. Listen how his guitar - with the typical glissandos - acts as a wonderful counterpoint to the soaring sax, and then does what few guitarists would dare to do ... adding single notes here and there, sprinkling them around.

And I think that's Abercrombie's most amazing feat, apart from his pure technical skills as a guitarist, he could play with musicians as diverse as Lonnie Smith and Charles Lloyd, Henri Texier or Kenny Wheeler, Jan Garbarek or Joe Lovano, he still made it work, fitting perfectly within the idiom of the leader, and without relinquishing his own style and approach to the instrument and to his own sound.

His own music as a leader moved more into mainstream modern jazz, carefully crafted and balanced pieces, often in combination with his favorite musicians such as DeJohnette, Adam Nusbaum, Marc Copland, Drew Gress, Joey Barron. His music was no longer mine, in the sense that it was too controlled, too contained, but I guess that this was exactly what he was looking for: superb musicianship, tight compositions, and joyful interplay with a wonderful focus on the music itself, putting his own instrument fully in the service of the band.

Despite the fact that I somehow lost track of his recordings over the year - I guess my tastes changed moving away from the mainstream and so did his, moving more into the mainstream, he made a great impression on me as a musician, as composer and as the member of so many bands.

Without a doubt he changed the role of the guitar in modern jazz. He was a true innovator and an artist with a wonderful empathy for the band members and listeners alike. And his precision on the instrument is unparalleled.

Our feelings are with his family and friends.

John Abercrombie, Deer Head Inn, July 2016
By Paul

The news that John Abercrombie had passed away yesterday came as real surprise. My mind went to a night approximately a year ago at the Deer Head Inn in Pennsylvania where Abercrombie was playing with an ad-hoc quartet. I recall sitting out on the porch before the show and his group was gathered around a table pouring over the New York Jazz Record commenting on the passing of trumpeter Paul Smoker. Abercrombie commented on how they had met years ago but that Smoker was always more out with his music. 

The snippet of overheard conversation stuck with me as a friend and I sat at the inn's stately wooden bar and took in the effortless fluidity pouring from Abercombie's small headless guitar. He was such a lyrical and melodic player and his fire was of the blue flame variety - burning hot at its core, unconcerned with spectacle. There was always a moment or two on his later recordings where this heat built to searing flame, but most of the time, it just burned consistently, flickering between warm and cool, perfectly situated for his long association with ECM. 

My interest in Abercrombie's work started with the album he made with John Scofield, Solar, but was quickly was followed by his early fusion statement Timeless, then his work with Ralph Towner, the excellent fusion/world music of the group 'Gateway' with Jack DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland, and his sharp organ trio work with organist Dan Wall and drummer Adam Nussbaum. His discography is rather lengthy and from the early Friends recording from the WKCR studies at Columbia University to his last date on ECM with Up and Coming, along with an impressive listing as a sideman on dozens of albums, he leaves a robust and influential body of work. 

While, by his own admission on that warm night in Water Gap, PA, he wasn't an out player, but his music transcended such fuzzy boundaries as his gentle yin-yang and laser precise use of distortion never failed to excite. Elements of free playing, modern jazz, and the timeless standards co-existed peacefully in John Abercrombie's music. 

Rest In Peace, John, thank you for the wonderful music, you will be missed. 


Colin Green said...

A great loss, and excellent tributes.

A personal reminiscence: a few years ago I saw Abercrombie play with a trio from Poland at Pizza Express in London, on a Monday night. I overheard the band complaining about the low attendance before they went on. "Guys" said Abercrombie "it's a Monday night. Even if Coltrane came back from the dead and played on a Monday, the place would only be half-full". It was a good gig.

Lee said...

Really great tributes

MJG said...

Sad news indeed. So many great album appearances and I'll treasure his work with Kenny Wheeler and his occasional visits to London playing with KW

Dom Minasi said...

A very sad day for the jazz community. His voice will be missed

000 said...

Gazong Press has a great book with sheet music from John Abercrombie called "Timeless". It also features his reflections on the compositions, musicians, albums and his own playing. It also features a discography that states that played on more than 240 albums.

A personal favorite is "Class Trip" on ECM, with compositions that are very much influenced by Bill Evans.

JimF said...

Great tributes. Thanks. Early Abercrombie also led me into jazz ... His best fusion recording to my ears was 'Friends' on the oblivion label recorded 1972, with marc cohen, jeff williams and clint houston. A really great recording, I still listen to it a few times a year.

JimF said...

Great tributes. Thanks. Early Abercrombie also led me into jazz ... His best fusion recording to my ears was 'Friends' on the oblivion label recorded 1972, with marc cohen, jeff williams and clint houston. A really great recording, I still listen to it a few times a year.

000 said...

Nels Cline essay on John Abercrombie:

Federico Antin said...

Stef and Paul, brilliant, moving tribute, thanks.