|John Abercrombie in November last year at Birmingham Conservatoire.|
Photo credit: © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk
Perhaps more than any other electric guitarist, John Abercrombie‘s playing approach defined the classic 1970’s “ECM” sound. Along with some of the other players that emerged in the late ’70s and ’80s on the ECM label, such as Terje Rypdal, Bill Frisell, Jan Garbarek and Kenny Wheeler, John pioneered the “less is more” approach to playing. Looking back, this period of jazz was an incredibly innovative and creative period in improvised music. Though John’s signature approach dates back to the ’70s, he went on to produce an extensive and rich catalogue of albums as both leader and side man which continued right up until his final year.
I first heard John Abercrombie playing on an album called Sargasso Sea with Ralph Towner. For me it was a revelation, because I heard melodic improvisation of a depth, originality, and subtle inflections of a kind that I hadn’t thought was possible on the guitar. The atmospheres John and Ralph were able to create, were like opening the door to a whole other world of moods, places and times. I found this incredibly inspiring, because it taught me that it wasn’t just about covering chord changes and playing lots of notes. It was clear from John’s playing that much more musically profound things could be said if you slowed down and explored the harmonies and their melodic implications more deeply.
Unlike most of the other jazz or fusion guitarists I know, John rarely played really fast lines. Instead what he played were lines of real musical depth. John had a way of improvising melodic phrases which sounded like deeply considered, composed reflections on the harmonic progression. He seemed able to speak with his playing about whole other levels of melodic and harmonic implications. Some of these seemed to hang in the air for minutes or hours after I heard them. In this, John Abercrombie was a pioneer the likes of which I have rarely heard since on the guitar or any other instrument.
The other area which really set John apart was his phrasing. He developed a unique set of slurs and inflections which made his playing immediately identifiable. Again a lot of this, I think, came from the fact that unlike so many other guitarists, he wasn’t trying to play fast lines all the time, instead he concentrated on meaning, detail and inflection.
Playing fewer notes also meant that John could use his artistry to create lines which were more like considered personal reflections, introspections and sometimes startling melodic and harmonic revelations. To my ears, John often said more with five slow notes than most others say with 30 or 40 fast ones. It’s not that I don’t like fast playing, it can be a great improvisational outlet if it’s born of passion and meaning, for example in John Coltrane’s late work. But John demonstrated the musical depth that could be created with space and inflection.
John’s melodically and harmonically deep, “less is more” approach was just as much apparent in his composing. His twisting, poignant, lyrical and strongly atmospheric tunes and harmonies sound like no one else and can be heard throughout his many albums.
In his later years, John’s playing and music took a more traditional turn, looking back towards the jazz of the past, yet his ability to say something of real depth about the harmonies when he soloed remained. Interestingly on his last album John returned to his innovative sound world of unique and deeply atmospheric compositions and moods.
John has such a large and varied catalogue of albums as leader and sideman over the years that it’s very hard to choose a few to recommend. I’ll start with the album that for me defined John’s unique approach to the guitar.
Sargasso Sea John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner (1976). This is a series of duets which is stunning in its originality and the depth of the atmospheres it creates.
Up And Coming John Abercrombie Quartet (2017). On his most recent album John returned back to his introspective and poignant best.
The Third Quartet John Abercrombie Quartet (2007). Beautiful playing throughout.
Five Years Later John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner (1982). A very different approach by two of the most original guitarists in the history of jazz.
Gateway 2 John Abercrombie, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette (1978). This is classic early Abercrombie with all his idiosyncratic phrasing and poignant melodic phrasing.
Characters John Abercrombie (1978). This album is all guitar with no other instruments and includes some self accompaniment as overdubs. This is full of introspective reflections, it is at times harmonically dense and perhaps a touch sombre for some, but a great example of the darker side of 1970s ECM.
Current Events John Abercrombie with Peter Erskine and Marc Johnson (1986). A beautiful introspective album, a classic ECM sound.
Kenny Wheeler’s Deer Wan – John Abercrombie with Wheeler, Dave Holand, Jan Garbarek, Jack Dejohnette, Ralph Towner (1977). I think this is one of the most under-sung, but great jazz albums of the 20th century. The compositions and arrangements by Wheeler are epic and stunning in their breadth, originality and atmosphere. A true masterpiece. This album features great playing by all, particularly notable is Wheeler himself playing some beautiful and deep improvisations on fluegelhorn. Also prominent is a faster more aggressive (than many may be used to), but brilliant side of Jan Garbarek. And of course a key component of this great album is John Abercrombie’s trademark twisting, gliding and melodically deep soloing.
Mark Wingfield is a guitarist and composer. His website is markwingfield.com