Wednesday, November 25, 2009
John Abercrombie: Searching For A Sound
John Abercrombie took quite a while to find his way in the musical world. A defining artist of the ECM record label, best known for his work with Billy Cobham , but growing up in Greenwich, Connecticut in the 1950's, it wasn't until around the age of nine that he started consciously listening to music.
It would be several more years before he discovered jazz, but he was first drawn to artists like Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. Years later he realized a connection. ”The thing about that music that I always found interesting was, when I went back to it, years later, I still found that I liked it because there was something still connected to jazz about it that I thought later music wasn’t. Some of the players were really good. Some were probably aspiring jazz players at the time and they wound up in these rhythm and blues bands.”
Right from the start, Abercrombie found he was particularly “attracted to the sound of the electric guitar... I didn’t know the difference between an electric and acoustic guitar. I didn’t even know what electricity was, but I know there was something about the electric guitar, or that sound I was hearing on records that drew me in.”
Noticing his interest, John’s parents bought him a cheap acoustic guitar for forty-nine dollars, but the steel strings always hurt his fingers. He says it was such an awful instrument that he "actually used it to play baseball a few times. I didn’t have a bat; 'well, I’ll use my guitar.'”
Surprisingly, Abercrombie's first encounters with jazz came through the Perry Como television program. Como “was a very low-key kind of a singer. He looked like he was going to die as he was singing. He was beyond mellow, but he had kind of a nice quality to his voice, and there was always a section of his show that was called ‘Dear Perry: Dear Perry would you be so kind to fill a request and sing the song I like best.’
Perry would waddle out, and behind him there was a guitar player on a stool with just a Gibson guitar plugged into an amplifier, and the guy was Tony Mottola.”
What grabbed John’s attention was the pretty chords that Mottola was playing, and he asked his teacher to show him what he was hearing. Note for note, he learned chord-melody renditions of standards like "Tenderly" and "Misty." He recalled that, he didn’t really know what he was doing, “but, like most guitar players, I just knew that if I put my fingers like this, and I did that, I got a sound.”
Eventually, jazz came along as a revelation when some friends played him Barney Kessel. To John’s ear, Kessel's bluesy bebop wasn't a big stretch from the Chuck Berry licks he was familiar with. From there came the music of Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis, which he found equally inspiring.
As the 1960's began, Abercrombie started making regular pilgrimages to New York to see jazz at the legendary Birdland club, even though sometimes he wasn’t quite ready for what he was hearing. Once he saw a double bill of the Bill Evans Trio (possibly with Scott LaFaro) and the John Coltrane Quintet with Eric Dolphy in 1961, and John remembers thinking at the time that Evans was "too tinkly: like cocktail lounge music," while Coltrane was "too far out." Of course, later on, both became great influences of his.
Abercrombie's first serious study of jazz came at the Berklee School of Music, where he worked with first-year teacher Jack Peterson. Just as John was trying to find his way in the music, Peterson was still searching for the best way to teach. "He was kind of scatter-brained as a teacher because it was his first year of teaching, and it was my first year of learning," but each week, the two would get together and Peterson would tell him, 'well, I don't know what to show you Johnny. Here, try this.'
The next week, Abercrombie would come back and say 'I tried this,' and Peterson would reply 'oh, forget about that. Look at this thing. Have you seen this thing by Ravel?'
Every week was a new adventure, but Abercrombie was making progress and getting exposed to new kinds of music and new schools of thought.
By his second year of college he was gigging regularly with a variety of groups, playing mostly incidental music at restaurants and lounges. There was one memorable stint with a Tijuana-styled brass band where he’d have to dress up in an outlandish frilly yellow outfit. He recalled the bass player joking one night, 'I feel like an explosion on the surface of the sun.'
Eventually, John got to be a regular at a supper club named Paul's Mall, which featured a range of acts including singers, dancers, and comedians. The club was right next to Boston's famous Jazz Workshop, and was owned by the same person, so Abercrombie would take his breaks, walk through the kitchen, and take in a set by John Coltrane or Horace Silver.
It was rare for the kitchen traffic to go the other way, as most of the touring groups never bothered to see what was going on at Paul's Mall, but John remembers the Brecker Brothers stepping in one night during a break in their sets with Silver's band. As Abercrombie recalls, "they liked something they heard, and they invited me to come to New York and audition for a fusion band called Dreams."
He landed that gig, and started making regular trips down to work in New York, gradually meeting more and more of the top musicians on the jazz scene. He took a job with Chico Hamilton, playing in the breaks at a discotheque for two or three months, and though it might not sound like much, it afforded Abercrombie the chance to take his "girlfriend, guitar, and one pair of shoes" down to New York.
John finally made the move there in 1970, got a place in the East Village, and it marked a turning point in his career. As he happily told the audience, "once I moved to New York, I never played another wedding or bar mitzvah."
From there, everything he did was either in the jazz idiom or influenced by it. As Abercrombie recalls, "it was a different time than it is now. There really wasn't a lot of competition for what people wanted me to do. It was the seventies, so it was the Mahavishnu Orchestra time. Everybody wanted to make a record that sounded kind of like Mahavishnu, and there weren't that many guitar players who could sort of cover that--believe it or not. Not that I could, but it was myself, Joe Beck, Sam Brown, and Steve Khan.”
As Abercrombie remembers it, those four guitarists found themselves on nearly every record date because “there was just nobody else. We were the only guys that could sort of cover that [sound,] yet still understood harmony and were more or less jazz musicians. We were just trying to break in, make a living, and meet people, and this is what we got hired to do."
While it might have been a chance to play, learn, and grow, it was not a period John sees as a proud achievement in music. "I think I did some of the worst recordings known to man from about 1968 to 1973." Years later, he heard the late Joe Beck recall the same thing, telling Abercrombie “I made so many shitty records back in the seventies.” The two vowed to someday get together, dredge up all of the horrible music, and see who actually won. Sadly, Beck passed away before that could happen.
Still, those times weren't all bad. "It was kind of fun. In those days, you almost couldn't take it seriously. We were [serious,] but when I go back and listen to some of that stuff I realize we sucked and a lot of the music that was being played sucked, but that was just the times. The sessions were done so quickly and so haphazardly that they couldn't possibly have turned out that well. I think there was something about this fusion kind of music that, this done-in-a-day session didn't work. The music needed more production to make it sound halfway decent."
Besides the production methods, Abercrombie felt the music was "a little superficial. You never heard a drummer go ding-dinga-ding and try to play a swing jazz feel. You never played with an acoustic bass player, and you never played over chord changes, except one."
Abercrombie was getting regular paychecks, playing on a lot of recording dates, but his stature on the national stage really took off when he joined Billy Cobham's band. Abercrombie and Cobham had worked together in Dreams, Cobham moving on to become a founding member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and this new group would continue in that vein. Abercrombie felt the music was "quite good," and said Cobham was "a force to be dealt with, and I loved playing with him."
In those years, Cobham’s band was playing arenas and opening for acts like the Doobie Brothers, The Average White Band, and Chicago. The pay was great, and, "you were on a retainer too, so they would give you money for even the weeks you didn't work. It wasn't a lot, but it was enough to keep you going, and you didn't have to find a whole lot of other gigs. You were kind of always on call."
"It just felt really unreal in a way. When you start to play for that many people in those kind of venues, something happens, and there's just no audience contact. You just see these thousands of people out there and there's no connection, and the kind of music you're playing is so loud that there's no intimacy, there's no interaction going on that I was interested in. It was a physically fun music to play. It was more physical than anything. You just felt good to try and play fast, and then Billy was so amazing, he could make anything I played sound good."
After a while, though, Abercrombie began to feel like something was missing. There was very little harmony and no swing feel in the music. "I finally realized this isn't what I set out to do... After years of not getting to do [the kind of music] I had originally fallen in love with, I realized I had to do something, and I had a savior. His name was Jack DeJohnette."
Though they’d never met, DeJohnette had heard of Abercrombie, and called him out of the blue to play some music. Abercrombie went to Jack's house in New Jersey where they played outdoors under the trees with bassist Miroslav Vitous. Saxophonist Steve Marcus, who lived across the valley, heard the music and walked across the field to come play with them as well.
His work with DeJohnette led to a chance meeting with Ralph Towner, one of the pioneers of ECM, who introduced him to Manfred Eicher, founder and owner of the European record label. On his first encounters with the label, Abercrombie said, "I was amazed that this kind of music existed. This was something completely different. It wasn't ding-dinga-ding jazz, and it wasn't bebop. This was something else that I didn't quite know what it was. I was transfixed. I loved the music, but I was also mystified. I felt stronger classical influences and folk influences and things that I hadn't dealt with yet. I was still dealing with earlier jazz and then fusion jazz, and then, just coming out of that, trying to find my way, all of a sudden I heard all this stuff, with strings, and it wasn't chord-change oriented at all."
The new music was revelatory for Abercrombie, and he recorded his first album for ECM in 1974. That record, Timeless, featuring DeJohnette and former Mahavishnu keyboardist Jan Hammer, was received incredibly well.
The music Abercrombie was exposed to through ECM opened up new possibilities. As he said, "I was getting in touch with different ways to play improvised music. Yeah, there was swing music, there was Dixieland, and there was bebop, and whatever Miles did, and then here were all these guys without that American tradition, but they'd listen to American jazz. They'd play some of it, but they were also writing their own music, and some of it didn't sound anything like what we do, yet they were improvising, and they were playing, and it sounded really good to me, so I got thrown into some of those situations."
Abercrombie is still very proud of his relationship with the Manfred Eicher and ECM. As he told the audience, "that label has persevered for forty years. That's amazing. There's not many labels that can attest to having this longevity, and also with the kind of music Manfred puts out, it's not, and never has been geared towards the mainstream."
Abercrombie has been a part of ECM for most of those forty years, and his recently released album, Wait Till You See Her, marks his twenty-seventh effort for the label as a leader.
He was eager to talk about the new project where he worked with violinist Mark Feldman. As he pointed out though, "it doesn't have as much to do with Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt as somebody might think. As much as I like that music, that was not the inspiration for this particular band. This was more, thinking of Mark Feldman's pure beautiful sound to play my melodies."
Wait ‘Til You See Her, marks the fourth record with this lineup which includes Joey Barron on drums and Thomas Morgan on bass. "They were all done with about one rehearsal: one three-hour rehearsal. Then we head into the studio and take two days to record it, one day to mix. We have a pretty good idea of how we're going to approach a tune, but that can change in the studio because nothing's written in stone. It's a lot of improvising going around all over the place, not only from the musicians, but also the recording engineer, Manfred, and the producer. Everyone's involved when we do one of these records, which is really nice because I've done plenty of record dates where no one's involved."
Over the years, Eicher has given Abercrombie the freedom to experiment, but always pushed him to find sounds that came to define the ECM style.
John has always gravitated to guitarists like Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall because their notes seemed to sing a little more. In his own sound, Abercrombie was much more reliant on his equipment to develop a unique singing voice though. As he said, "I see the guitar and the amplifier as one."
"Basically the guitar is a piece of lumber. Some are made of a little better lumber than others, but it almost doesn't matter. Once you put an electronic pickup in the guitar, and you have a cable, and you plug it into an amplifier that sits outside of you, your sound's coming out of there... I can understand why the rock 'n' roll players need to use stacks of Marshall amps. This gives them what they want. They need to play that loud. They have to. That's part of the sound. I didn't need to play that loud, but I needed a sound, so I just had to try different things until I came up with it. I realized the guitar was the least important part in my sound. A lot of the possibilities come from whether it's just a single amplifier with no reverberation, or whether it's a stack of Marshalls, or whether it's some sophisticated setup."
It may have taken John Abercrombie some time to find his place in the musical world, but he’s certainly left his imprint on jazz. His unique voice on the guitar can be heard on well over 200 recordings, but he’s far from finished saying his piece.
Here are some excerpts of John Abercrombie speaking at the interview: