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.