An interview with John Abercrombie from 2012 by Gideon Egger and Ying Zhu.
“Be true to yourself; be true to what it is you’re hearing and feeling and try to get that to come out in your music.”
- John Abercrombie
Jazz guitarist John Abercrombie has been working steadily, both as a leader and a sideman, for nearly fifty years.
Abercrombie first picked up the guitar when he was thirteen years old.
John Abercrombie: Back in the ‘50s there was a lot of music with guitar: there was country music and rock ‘n’ roll and that’s the first music I heard. I liked the sound of the electric guitar. It wasn’t the music so much; it was just the sound of the guitar that grabbed me.
When I was young I was listening to rock ‘n’ roll, people like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Elvis Presley’s band. I don’t know if they really influenced me so much but that was the music I heard when I was young so of course I tried to copy all that 50’s rock ‘n’ roll.
Later I started listening to everybody. Through recordings I was exposed to people like Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, and Kenny Burrell – all the famous people from the ‘50s. The two main people who influenced me the most were Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall. When I finally heard those guys play, I realized that they had a different way to play than a lot of the other guys from their generation, and I liked the way they played better–somehow it seemed more melodic, more lyrical; there was more space.
Years later I was influenced when I heard the Hungarian guitar player Gábor Szabó play with Chico Hamilton. He played more of a freer style and I really liked it. When Larry Coryell first arrived on the music scene, he was playing so differently, utilizing rock and country influences and distortion like I hadn’t heard before. Later it was John McLaughlin and that whole era of guitar players, but my main influences are centered around Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall because I think they changed the direction of jazz guitar and set the standard. But I was influenced probably by every guitar player who ever played.
There were also many other instrumentalists–not only guitar players: I was very much influenced by Bill Evans the piano player, Miles Davis, Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, also Art Farmer – its just about everybody who has played. I don’t think I could find anyone from that period that I didn’t like.
They were older and much better than me so I knew that if I wanted to learn about jazz I had to listen to these people. It wasn’t study like going to school, it was more listening to the recordings, trying to really get a feeling for the music, and I was very fortunate because I was young enough that I got to hear a lot of these people play live and experience the culture and atmosphere and I think that’s very important; that’s something you can’t get anymore because most of the great musicians have passed on. You can only hear them through recordings.
In 1962 Abercrombie moved from his hometown in Connecticut to Boston, to attend the Berklee College of Music. He graduated in 1967, but stayed in Boston until 1970.
Abercombie: I became a Boston musician, very much on the scene, and I played a lot of gigs on guitar. I also played gigs on electric bass because there was a shortage of electric bass players.
I met most of the really good players in Boston and worked with them. I got a gig with an organ player named Johnny “Hammond” Smith. That was my first real experience playing jazz live. I played every night and I had to play standard tunes, blues and whatever he wanted me to play. I stayed with him for a few years and then I moved to New York in 1970.
Before that I was coming to New York occasionally. I was a member of an early fusion band called Dreams that included Michael and Randy Brecker and Billy Cobham. They had met me in Boston when they were passing through and invited me to join their band. This was a completely different kind of music. I was used to standard songs, blues and traditional jazz and all of a sudden I found myself playing fusion music because it was starting to become popular.
I moved to New York in 1970 to play with Chico Hamilton. We would play standard songs and we would improvise things freely. Chico would encourage me to write, so that’s maybe when I started actually writing a couple songs.
Abercrombie has been composing ever since:
Abercrombie: One time somebody asked Ralph Towner after a concert about a beautiful song. He said, “oh you must have written this somewhere serene and beautiful like a sea or a lake or a mountain,” and Ralph said, “no I wrote this in a hotel room in Detroit.” I love that because it makes you realize that the inspiration can come from inside.
I wrote a lot of music when I was living in Manhattan in a dark apartment. There’s no light and there’s no view, just an elevator shaft in the back or a stairwell. So the inspiration has to come from somewhere else and usually for me it came from what I was hearing.
Sometimes I hear something in my head but a lot of times I just start playing the guitar and something develops. I also write on the piano.
If I write something on the guitar it generally comes out more natural because that’s my instrument but I find things on the piano that I would never find on the guitar because it’s fresh for me. If I write on the piano it takes me a little time to adapt it to the guitar. I have to think about how would I play this on the guitar – how would I like to hear this song played?
During the nineteen-seventies Abercrombie played and recorded with–among others–Billy Cobhams’s band, Enrico Rava, Gateway (featuring Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette), Ralph Towner, and Collin Walcott.
Abercombie: I was friends with Collin and everyone from the band Oregon. Ralph Towner and I played together in a duo for many years. I met Collin and we did two recordings together. Playing with Collin was easy because Collin was probably one of the most relaxed, easiest people I ever met. He was just such a gentle, easy-going guy and he made everything very simple. The music he wanted to play was never very difficult technically or harmonically. It was usually something I could get right into. I did have to change gears sometimes, especially when he played the tabla or the sitar. Those instruments have such specific sounds–I always found that a challenge and I’d try to fit in and still sound like me.
For a lot of the music I played back in those days, I didn’t really have a role model to follow because there were not a lot of guys playing with these combinations. I couldn’t put on a record and find somebody who had already done this because this stuff wasn’t really being done. So I had to figure out how to do it. I accepted the challenges; I enjoyed it and I wanted to play different kinds of music so I kind of just jumped in with both feet. It made me really rely on my instincts and my musical sensibility because I didn’t know where to go.
Collin and I – for all the esoteric music that we play on these recordings, people probably think we sit around and meditate and burn incense and that’s not the case. I used to meet Collin at an Irish bar and we would drink Whiskey. That’s how we hung out.
Ralph Towner and I used to play a lot of concerts together and quasi-spiritual people would come back and they’d walk into our dressing room expecting to find this calm environment. What they would find is two guys drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and talking really fast and just being completely neurotic. I think people couldn’t really put these two things together.
Most of the time what you play can be very different from what you’re like as a person. How you live your life isn’t necessarily how you play your music, because music is a way to become different. It’s a way to find yourself but its also a way to express feelings you wouldn’t know how to express any other way. I think that’s what makes music so great. You can just get in there and get lost in it and find things. Then, when you come out of it, you’re not the same person that was playing the music.
Abercrombie released his first album as a leader, Timeless –featuring Jack DeJohnette on drums and Jan Hammer on organ—in 1974, on the ECM label.
Abercombie: When I was coming up nobody made their own record unless they were invited to because nobody could afford to go into a studio–you had to go through a company. That’s just the way it worked. Usually that happened because somebody recommended you. Manfred Eicher from ECM – he offered me a chance to make my own record back in 1973 and I took that opportunity.
In the nineteen-eighties Abercrombie pioneered the use of guitar synthesizer on the records Current Events, Getting There, and Abercrombie, Erskine and Johnson, all featuring Peter Erskine on drums and Marc Johnson on bass (Getting There also featured Michael Brecker on saxophone).
I had just gotten a synthesizer and had already started to work with it. I realized that it had a lot of limitations in terms of playing it as a musical instrument. It had these tracking problems and they would depend on what kind of a sound you were trying to generate from the synthesizer. Some of them worked better than others, they were quicker and more accurate, and some of them were really slow. I spent a lot of time programming with the original synthesizer I had. It was a Roland – I don’t remember what they called the module but it was a big module that would sit on the floor and I would spend hours programming and combining different sounds and trying to create my own little sounds which I would use to write songs with.
Later I began to experiment with other guitar synthesizers and I started to add certain modules to my gear. I started to get little piano modules and other things. I can’t remember how it evolved but by the time we did Getting There, I had something that would trigger a lot of different synths. In the studio I had keyboards hooked up to my guitar, I had my Roland guitar synthesizer. I just had so much stuff.
We did a live record called Abercrombie, Erskine and Johnson, that was probably the last time I used a lot of guitar synthesizers. One day I decided that I had gotten tired of the sound. I got tired of the tracking problems and nothing worked that well. It became very frustrating to deal with. It was exciting but it was also frustrating so I finally decided that I needed to let it go and just play the guitar. I never went back to the synthesizer but I must say I had a lot of fun.
Abercrombie’s gear has changed over the years, but his passion for music, and for the guitar, has remained fixed.
I think the most rewarding thing is just what happens when you play. Its not so much the product that comes out afterwards although it makes me feel good when I like something I’ve done, but I think it’s the act of playing. It never totally ceased to be a great experience for me. I had good days, I had bad days, I had in between days but basically I wouldn’t trade it for anything. This is my life and it’s like having something that’s really your own. Nobody can take it away from you. It’s what feeds me; it’s my other food and I can’t imagine being without it.
That’s the most important part about it for me and yes it is very difficult to make a living at it but that seems to have taken care of itself somehow over the years.
His most recent ECM release, Within a Song–featuring Joe Levano on tenor saxophone, Drew Gress on bass, and Joey Baron on drums—takes him back to his roots in the jazz of the 1960s.
I’ve always wanted to include standard tunes in some of my CDs and that’s why I did Within A Song. It’s about where I come from: I’m really a ‘60s jazzer.
I grew up listening to jazz. Once I heard jazz I knew that’s what I wanted to play.
I said, I’ll just think of the period where a lot of this music came from and choose different things relating to that period and that was much easier to think of. There was so much music I liked growing up in the ‘60s, so it was pretty easy to make my choices. I knew I wanted to do something with Jim Hall and Sonny Rollins because that was probably my favorite record of all time – this record called The Bridge with Sonny and Jim.
That’s why it’s called Within A Song because the first song on that record is Without A Song, which is the famous old standard tune. I even play that for my students now, in my composition class. The idea is to show them composition can be literal, it can be written down or it can be improvised. The way these guys improvise makes it sound like they’re compositions.
When I was preparing the CD, I thought of some of my favorite music. Everything that’s on that recording is some of my favorite music, like the Coltrane piece Wise One. It was so clear and concise and beautiful. I just went through all this different music in my head and decided on the pieces and then I had to figure out, did I want to play them traditionally and what kind of a take did I want to put on them? What kind of things did I want to do to them to make them a little more personal?
In the case of Without A Song, I wrote a new melody for it, that’s why its called Within A Song. We played my new melody for most of the song and took improvised solos on the standard form of Without A Song and then at the very end, we played the melody to the original tune. I made reference to little devices that were on the original recording. That was really the one I spent the most time on.
Wise One I just played as it appeared on the music sheet. I didn’t have to arrange it; I just had to have a plan. That’s what happened with most of these tunes. They weren’t arranged so much as they had little twists to them that I had to write down.
I wrote two other pieces that are totally my songs because I wanted to have a couple of my songs on the record. I wrote a song called Easy Reader and everybody said it must be connected to Easy Rider, the movie from the ‘60s but that was never my intention. The reason it was called Easy Reader is because you look at the music page and the way it’s written, it’s extremely easy to read: it’s just a literal name.
I’m really happy; it seems like from most of the reviews, people get it. It’s a tribute to a certain period and its really true, when I heard that music in the ‘60s, there was something about it that made me realize that I could play some of this. I heard the Crescent album; I heard Kind of Blue; I heard Bill Evans with Jim Hall, these beautiful records. They were all very lyrical and had a lot of space in them. I was able to hear the music better; I could hear what they were doing. Physically and emotionally I reacted to the music because I felt it had more emotions that I could relate to.
In spite of his busy schedule as a performer, Abercrombie takes time to teach aspiring jazz guitarists and composers as a member of the faculty at SUNY Purchase. The same passion and focus that characterize his playing also guide his approach to his students.
It’s nice to know that when I teach or record I am making things available to people. I’m leaving something with the students, and, I hope, something is getting through. I realize when I think back upon when I was in school, one of the most important parts about having teachers was the confidence and feedback they gave you. The compliments and all of the support are really important.
I work with them on reading but the most important thing is being able to hear what you do and being able to relate what you’re hearing to your instrument, being able to make the transition from your brain and your emotions to your instrument; being able to construct meaningful ideas whether you’re writing something or taking an improvised solo–to really make a statement, make a connection.
The old guys used to say: “tell a story,” and I think that’s a nice way of putting it. Part of it has to do with just being able to really listen to what you play. If you play something you have to follow it so it’s almost like you have to use your instinct or your ears to tell you what to play next.
Be true to yourself; be true to what it is you’re hearing and feeling and try to get that to come out in your music.