John was one of my first modern guitar heroes. His style drew on masters like Wes and Jim Hall while pushing the boundaries of sound, melody, and harmony further. He was one of the first to experiment with guitar synthesizer, but quickly abandoned it. Here is a personal remembrance.
I knew John since the Seventies. He used to play regularly at the Mercer Arts Center. Michael Tschudin, the Arts Center’s musical director had a trio with John and a drummer. Tschudin would begin on piano with John on electric bass and during the tune would switch to organ, covering the bass while John soloed on guitar.
Abercrombie was also a participant in a show that taught me about the kind of telepathy that goes on among great musicians. It was Chico Hamilton’s band at CBGBs before it was a rock club. The band was Hamilton on drums, Glen Moore and Ralph Towner of the band Oregon on bass and piano respectively and Marc Copland on sax. They performed “Georgia On My Mind,” and when it came to the end they played the most clichéd blues ending imaginable, but all stopped before the last resolving note as if simultaneously realizing how hackneyed the ending was and deciding to throw a wrench in it. If that wasn’t enough, the show featured a freely improvised duet with John and Glenn that they ended together without any verbal or visual signal, just because the internal logic of their improvisation made it obvious to them and anyone listening that it was the end. I have been chasing that kind of telepathy with other musicians my whole life and have been lucky enough to experience it once or twice.
John was the elder statesman of the Golden Generation of guitarists that included John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Mike Stern, and Pat Metheny. I have often tried to figure out why, though he was equally talented and distinctive, his popular success never matched theirs. Still, he was well respected and always working, while following his own path with no compromise. He was, for my money, the hardest swinging, most melodically adventurous player I have ever heard.
He was also very funny. I ran into him in Ken and John’s on Broome Street once. We discussed how we both had ended our dabbling with vegetarianism by eating hamburgers there. He had just come off the road with Billy Cobham. Having aspirations to tour myself and being very young, I asked him what the “groupie” situation was. I learned it was different in the jazz world. “It’s hard to convince a woman you are up for a serious relationship when you are leaving town the next day,” he said.
I took some lessons from John in the Seventies, before he was into teaching or I was into studying, but seeing him play and listening to his records so often made a massive imprint in my own style. Though I never became a jazz player, I hear him in every note that comes off my fingers and he will live on for me there.
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I love John’s music and playing. Very sad that I never got around to seeing live before he passed. He is the only ECM guitarist whose guitar synth playing worked for me.
Sad to see Mr. Abercrombie leave our world. Like many other guitarists, I wore out my copy of “Timeless”–I had shelled out for European vinyl at that! And any jazzman that used a Gibson Melody Maker as a main axe is pretty damn hip! (Just check out the photo with the NY Time obit).
Ha! Great stories Michael… Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for sharing these memories. The album Timeless was my gateway in to John’s musical world, and also in to the vast musical landscape of ECM. In many ways John was the perfect ECM artist. his economy of playing and his lyricism matched the atmospheric production aesthetic of Manfred Eicher effortlessly. I saw him play numerous times at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz. He was always warm , humble, funny, appreciative of the interest , and patient with the geek questions. As I was listening to Timeless yesterday, I was struck by how fresh it sounds. Timeless indeed.
thank you for sharing your vibrant, precious memories with us here.
John Abercrombie was all substance, no flashy wrapping around him, as was his playing, inspired, never obvious. with very few exceptions, those who have reached popular success in our times, they do usually care about the (flashy) wrapping a lot more than he did.
it’s sad to see another lighthouse fade out, may John Abercrombie rest in peace. but, in his wakes, we can at least introduce future generations to his vision and taste, thanks to the impressive (recorded) heritage John has left behind for us all.
Well said, I was musing about that same thing and how John’s music was such a respite from much of the other fusion jazz of that period. As much as I enjoyed the virtuosity of the predominate bands of that era, the more minimalist atmospheric early ECM works of Abercrombie, Metheny, Rypdal, Tibbets, Towner, and Bill Connors were the influences that still resonate with me today.