Aberaombie, John (Contemporary Musicians)
Prolific jazz fusion guitarist John Abercrombie is widely regarded as one of the most versatile and talented guitarists in the post-war jazz era. He was in demand as a sideman from countless bandleaders, including Gil Evans and Gato Barbieri, in the 1970s, and then formed his own jazz fusion group, Timeless, in the early 1970s. By 1975 he had formed his Gateway Trio with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. He collaborated extensively with DeJohnette in the 1980s, performed and recorded voluminous amounts of material, and completed critically-acclaimed duet work with Ralph Towner. He led a quartet featuring Michael Becker, and was involved in an all-star big-bad that recorded Charles Mingus' Epitaph.
Beginning around 1974, he preferred a subdued, "chamber" style jazz sound. Abercrombie is a jazz innovator who makes creative use of distorting devices, and utilizes elements of bop, rock, and free-style jazz in his distinctive sound. His thoughtful control of tone-color is especially apparent in his duo performances with acoustic guitarist Ralph Towner. Down Beat's Larry Birnbaum wrote, "John Abercrombie keeps post-fusion guitar relevant in the neo-bop era. He straddles the boundaries between freedom and structure, his dark, slippery lines ringing with mystery and melancholy in contexts ranging from trios to big bands. Although he's known for his spaced-out meditations, his music is firmly grounded in mainstream jazz."
Born John L. Abercrombie on December 16, 1944, in Portchester, NY. Abercrombie began taking guitar lessons at the age of 14 from a local teacher, although he mostly taught himself. He attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston from 1962 to 1966, where he studied guitar with Jack Petersen. He played in rock bands in the 1960s, but also toured with organist Johnny "Hammond" Smith in 1967 and 1968. Touring with an established band such as Smith's, Abercrombie gleaned the sort of practical experience that offset his academic studies perfectly and prepared him for his own success. His musical influences were Jim Hall, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, John McLaughlin, Larry Young, Jack McDuff, George Benson, Pat Martino, and John Coltrane.
Abercrombie moved to New York City in 1969. Due to his unusual technical command of his instrument, he had little trouble finding opportunities to play with established musicians Between 1969 and 1974 he played with Randy and Michael Brecker in the group Dreams, and toured with the Chico Hamilton Band. While touring with Hamilton, he traveled to Europe for the first time and appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival. After playing with Hamilton, he joined Billy Cobham's jazzrock fusion group Spectrum, where he first gained widespread attention from fans and other musicians alike. Cobham's hard-driving, rock-influenced band was the ideal venue for Abercrombie's prodigious imagination and masterful technique at this early stage in his career, and he was able to expand his musical horizons, develop his technique, and fuse his experience with both jazz and rock guitar. He also played with Jeremy Steig, Gil Evans, and Gato Barbieri, while recording with Dave Liebman.
Abercrombie formed his own trio, Timeless, in 1974 and recorded the album Timeless. At this time, it was clear he had grown fond of a more subdued, experimental "chamber" style of jazz while performing with his own small groups or as a popular sideman. He performed as a sideman for Jack DeJohnette's combos, and made jazz inroads by using distorting devices such as the phase shifter and volume pedal with the electric guitarnd occasionally with the electric mandolin. By the mid-1970s, he was discovering his unique and innovative musical "voice," approaching fusion with a softer, more delicate style. He replaced the Timeless trio with the Gateway trio in 1975, which included Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. In 1978, the trio was replaced by a quartet, which lasted until 1981. After the trio disbanded, Abercrombie continued to collaborate and record with DeJohnette throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He made important contributions to ensembles led by De-Johnette and took part in numerous recording sessions with him as well. In an interview with Down Beat, Abercombie told Frank-John Hadley, "I always think meeting Jack was one of the turning points because it put me back on a track that I wanted to get back on, which was playing more jazz-influenced music, or multidimensional music ... play standard songs, write our own material, improvise and delve into more abstracted, very free rock-type fields."
Abercrombie is cited by many as helping to create the "ECM sound," a patchwork of acoustic and electric sounds created by eclectic musicians who combine jazz with European and Asian/Indian elements and influences. Abercrombiehas recorded with Ralph Towner, Jan Hammer, Dave Holland, Mike Brecker, Richie Beirach, George Mraz, Peter Donald, Marc Johnson, Adam Nussbaum, Peter Erskine, Vince Mendoza, and Jon Christensen, among others.
Abercrombie is mildly irked by the fact that he was pigeonholed as a modernist who can't play swing standards or more traditional fare. He told Hadley, "So many people today hear (my) ECM records, especially the earlier ones, where some of the music gets very spacey and non-harmonic and floaty, and they don't realize I grew up playing "Green Dolphin Street" with an organ trio. I think that's one of the reasons I keep coming back to the traditional format with the organ." Abercrombie takes occasional breaks from his organ trio; he reassembled his historical Gateway trio with DeJohnette and Dave Holland in 1995 to record and tour Europe. When describing to Hadley what it was like to play with DeJohnette and Holland again, he said, "It's like somebody throwing you into a room with all these great foods and saying, 'Go ahead, you can do whatever you want in here'." Abercrombie also works with drummer Peter Erskine and bass player Marc Johnson, a long-standing relationship that flourished anew during a 1995 tour of Europe. Hadley described Abercrombie as a "worldclass guitarist," which was as apt a description as any that have been written.
Timeless, ECM, 1974.
Gateway, ECM, 1975.
Cloud Dance, ECM, 1976.
Pilgrim & The Stars, ECM, 1976.
Gateway 2, ECM, 1977.
Characters, ECM, 1977.
Pictures, ECM, 1977.
Arcade, ECM, 1978.
Straight Flight, Jam, 1979.
Abercrombie Quartet, ECM, 1979.
M, ECM, 1980.
Drum Strum, Arch, 1982.
Solar, Palo Alto, 1982.
Night, ECM, 1984.
Current Events, ECM, 1985.
Witchcraft, Justin Time, 1986.
Getting There, ECM, 1988.
Works, ECM, 1988.
John Abercrombie, Marc Johnson & Peter Erskine, ECM, 1988.
Animato, ECM, 1989.
While We're Young, ECM, 1992.
November, ECM, 1992.
Speak of the Devil, ECM, 1993.
Gateway: Homecoming, ECM, 1994.
(with Ralph Towner) Sargasso Sea, ECM, 1976.
(with Ralph Towner) Five Years Later, ECM, 1981.
As A sideman
B. Cobham: Crosswinds, Atlantic, 1974.
J. DeJohnette: Sorcery, Prst, 1974.
Untitled, ECM, 1976.
New Directions, ECM, 1978.
Down Beat, March 1997; November 1994.
Guitar Player, February 1995.
B. Kimberly Taylor