There were no straight lines, no sudden leaps, no predictable trajectory in John Abercrombie’s coming of age as a jazz guitarist. He didn’t arrive as a child prodigy nor did he exude an overpowering confidence. He came up listening to Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore on Elvis Presley sides in the ’50s; encountered his first jazz revelation taking in Barney Kessel on the 1957 LP The Poll Winners with Shelly Manne and Ray Brown; experienced his second guitar epiphany hearing Jim Hall’s counterpoints to Sonny Rollins on the saxophonist’s The Bridge; and later bowed to Jimi Hendrix, especially 1968’s Axis: Bold As Love.
In his early days, Abercrombie was more likely to unplug and retreat to his room when he heard further-evolved musicians—saxophonists, pianists, other guitarists—than to charge full-speed into jam sessions unprepared and unable to keep up.
During Abercrombie’s first year at Berklee School of Music in 1962 (eight years before its name was changed to Berklee College of Music), he heard saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, a fellow classmate, practicing Charlie Parker tunes, which crushed him. “I felt terrible,” Abercrombie says. “[I thought], ‘I’ll never be able to play this music. It’s too hard.’ But I stuck it out. I didn’t know what else to do. If that didn’t work, well, I thought I could go home and pump gas. I could give it up and become one of everyone else.”
Not a chance. Determined, Abercrombie dug in, studied heavily, listened intently, practiced vehemently and overcame the urge to retreat. Fifty years after enrolling at Berklee, the 67-year-old Abercrombie is recognized as one of jazz’s most identifiable and adventurous six-stringers. He has enjoyed a profoundly successful career as a leader almost exclusively on ECM Records, including his new album, Within A Song—an homage largely to the music of the early ’60s that made an impact on his young ears—featuring the support team of Joe Lovano on saxophone, Drew Gress on bass and Joey Baron on drums. He pays tribute to Rollins and Hall, Art Farmer, Bill Evans, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman—artists who were resolute on re-envisioning the tradition.
In the album’s liner notes, Abercrombie writes, “It was this music that spoke to me. When I heard it, it was like finding a new home. The music on this recording is dedicated to all those musicians [who] gave me a place to live.”
After years living in Boston post-Berklee and then relocating in 1970 to a loft space in New York, the amiable and self-effacing Abercrombie today dwells in the country, about an hour from New York by car or train. He’s got a deck for barbecuing, a pool that’s perfect for a summer day, a yard with tall trees and a disheveled downstairs jam-session room scattered with instruments, most of them guitars. Abercrombie seems contently settled yet also ready to pounce onto a new quartet project that’s already in the wings (this time with the same rhythm team and pianist Marc Copeland, a longtime collaborator).
Convinced he wanted to pursue a musical life while still in high school, Abercrombie started poking around at post-graduation possibilities. Two schools he investigated were Manhattan School of Music and The Juilliard School. “None acknowledged jazz, and none accepted guitar as a major instrument,” he says. “Plus, they were looking for students who had super-good grades, which I didn’t, so they were out from the beginning.”
He heard about Berklee from a friend and sent away for a catalog; when it arrived, there on the cover were various musicians hanging around the front steps of the school. One was Hungarian guitarist Gábor Szabó, who had his instrument with him. Abercrombie opened the booklet and discovered there were numerous classes for guitarists. “‘That’s for me, I’m in,’” he recalls. “The requirements were two years of musical experience. Everybody lied. I had classes with guys who couldn’t play at all, and real professional players.” He adds, with a laugh, “Keith Jarrett was there my first year. He came and realized there was nothing they could offer him, so he went off to fame and fortune.”
After a discouraging first year at Berklee, Abercrombie gained confidence, especially through the encouragement of such teachers as Herb Pomeroy, John LaPorta and Jack Petersen (the first full-time guitar teacher and inaugural chair of the guitar department). Abercrombie soon scored a gig with a small band. “It felt good to be a working musician, carrying my guitar down the street,” he says. “It was being on a team, where you don’t quite know what it is but that you’re part of it, you’re in this thing called music.”
There weren’t many opportunities to play in public, so at first Abercrombie did that more in private. He was hired to play in the Danny White Orchestra r&b/blues band, whose gigs included playing at Air Force and Army bases. There repertoire included r&b standards as well as arrangements of Horace Silver’s and Ray Charles’ music. That led to Abercrombie being enlisted by Hammond B3 player John “Hammond” Smith.
“John was looking for a young guitar player whom he could abuse and pay the least amount of money possible,” he says with a laugh. It was a funky, jazz-tinged job in the organ tradition that kept the young guitarist busy for seven nights a week plus a Sunday matinee. Abercrombie later made his first recording with Smith in 1968, The Soulful Blues, in a band that included saxophonist Houston Person and drummer Grady Tate.
During this time, two seminal events were taking place in the outside world. First was the rise in popularity of rock music, precipitated by The Beatles and enlarged upon by bands that Abercrombie listened to, including Cream and later Hendrix. But the most immediate backdrop was the Vietnam War. Abercrombie attended Berklee from 1962–’66, which sheltered him from the draft, then graduated in 1967. If he had pushed to teach, he would have avoided conscription, but he opted not to go that route. “I didn’t want to teach,” he says. “I was too young. I wanted to play.”
Two days after graduation he received his notice to report to the induction center in New Haven, Connecticut, to take his physical. “I flunked,” says Abercrombie with a big smile. “It’s a true story. I was born with a short right leg that required me to wear a lift in my shoe. Of course, it was embarrassing as a kid. It looked weird. Kids at school would call me Frankenstein. So I stopped wearing it. But when I got my draft notice, my mother suggested getting new shoes with a lift. And my doctor wrote a letter that said something like, ‘Please excuse John from killing and maiming today. He’s not feeling well.’ So I took the physical and I was rejected.”
Abercrombie soon jumped into the jazz- rock fire by joining the pioneering fusion band Dreams, which included Randy and Michael Brecker, Billy Cobham (then Bill Cobham Jr.) and others. “It was an assorted group of maniacs,” Abercrombie says. “That was the beginning of me not playing straightahead jazz for many years.”
While the band largely fizzled in the fusion zone, it did help launch Cobham’s career. The drummer played with Davis, joined up with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, and into the early-to-mid-’70s helmed his own fusion band, to which Abercrombie was enlisted. It was exciting, and Abercrombie loved his bandmates, but the gig ultimately took him away from his jazz roots.
“I was playing with a wah-wah pedal and other effects,” he recalls. “I could play this music and still play a standard like ‘Stella By Starlight,’ which a lot of the guys couldn’t go near. I knew Billy could play with a beautiful swing, but he was playing rock rhythms in odd meters and always funky. The harmonies didn’t go very far. The solos were played on a vamp. Something was missing.”
When Cobham’s band went on tour as the opening act for the Doobie Brothers, Abercrombie’s dissatisfaction grew. It climaxed when they played the Spectrum in Philadelphia. “They play football there,” he says in mock exasperation. “And I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here? Wait a minute—this isn’t what I set out to do.’ I needed an out.”
The big turning point, Abercrombie says, came when he got a call out of the blue: “The phone rang and it’s, ‘Hey man, this is Jack DeJohnette. I got your number from a friend, and I’ve been hearing good things about you. I’m starting a band. Would you like to come to my house with Miroslav Vitous and jam?’”
Abercrombie agreed, they set up in DeJohnette’s backyard (at this time the drummer was living in Flemington, New Jersey) and played free improvisations. “All of sudden,” Abercrombie says, “we hear someone playing a soprano saxophone off in the distance. It was Steve Marcus, who lived across this field. As he got closer and closer, we were playing along with him. It was a mind-blowing hippie experience. That was how I got out of hard-core fusion into something that was way more expansive.”
Around this same time, Abercrombie linked up with ECM label founder Manfred Eicher, who knew the guitarist from his appearance on trumpeter Enrico Rava’s 1973 album Katchapari Rava (on the Italian label BASF) and invited him to make a recording as a leader. Initially Abercrombie told Eicher that he was just a sideman and hadn’t written much of his own music.
But Eicher persisted. They corresponded by mail, and finally the guitarist said that he was ready. His vision for a trio included DeJohnette and organist/pianist Jan Hammer. “I hired two ridiculous guys who were so good, so wide open, so exploratory, so full of amazing chops, it was all I could do to keep up with them to make the record,” he says. The result was Abercrombie’s Timeless, which teems with a rare blend of spirited fusion, gripping rhythms and acoustic jazz, including two ballads that Abercrombie wrote specifically for the session.
In 1975, Abercrombie, DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland formed the monster post-fusion band Gateway and recorded its eponymous debut for ECM. “Phew, that was such a great band,” Abercrombie says. “The music was so fresh. I was a crazy kid then. We were all like kids let loose in a toy shop. It was like, ‘Take any toy—you won’t get in trouble.’ I had permission to take all kinds of risks. It was the Wild West. One audience member told us that he heard that record and he shaved his head. There were no guitar trios then playing in that free style.” The group recorded two albums, then reconvened nearly 20 years later for two more.
Holland recalls those heady early days. “That band meant a lot in the ’70s,” he says. “We got to explore music that no one else was doing. We had great tours.” As for Abercrombie’s guitar voice, Holland adds, “John has always looked to seek new music. He has great range. And he has such a personal voice on the guitar, which is not easy. Over the years he’s come up with his own sound, approach, phrasing. He can straddle a lot of styles, going into the contemporary field with open-form music and contemporary beats.”
Beginning with Timeless and Gateway, with rare exceptions, Abercrombie has been in ECM’s stable since, playing with a dizzying array of musicians, including a quartet with pianist Richie Beirach, more sessions with Rava, albums with Ralph Towner as well as Jan Garbarek, a trio with Peter Erskine and Marc Johnson, and for the last four albums before Within A Song, a quartet with violinist Mark Feldman.
Abercrombie opted to form a new quartet for the Within A Song sessions, this time with a saxophonist instead of violin. “I felt like that last quartet had run its course,” he says. “I went back and forth with Manfred about this and finally he said, ‘Why don’t you call Lovano?’ I’d played with Joe over the years, but I figured he was just so busy with recordings and touring. Still, I called him up, and he said, ‘Absolutely.’ I knew he would be the best person because he knows the music.”