PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
April 4, 2006

Adventurous Jazzman

by Jim Newsom

John Abercrombie first appeared on the musical radar as a full-bore fusion-propelled guitarist in the mid ‘70s on albums by Billy Cobham, Michal Urbaniak and Dave Liebman. But he’d already spent years steeped in the straightahead jazz tradition.

“I started out as a real jazz guy when I went off to the Berklee School in the early ‘60s,” he told me in a recent telephone conversation. “Even by the time I was getting out of school and hanging around Boston, the fusion thing hadn’t come full circle yet. It was starting in the mid ‘60s; guys were talking about wah-wah pedals and listening to Jimi Hendrix. But before that it was pure jazz, and that’s what I was trying to play. I used to play with these organ trios and play standard songs--that’s what I wanted to do. And then all of a sudden the fusion thing hit and I found myself wrapped up in it.

“A lot of guys my age or a little bit younger were primed for that. We were just kind of jumping on the bandwagon; it seemed like whatever Miles did, everybody did.”

For the last thirty years, Abercrombie, who’ll be in town this week for a five-day residency at Old Dominion University, has been one of the most consistently intriguing and innovative guitarists, creating a distinctive mix of jazz, rock, folk, classical and ethnic musical influences that is practically a genre unto itself. His lengthy discography of ECM recordings is texturally rich, filled with melodic complexity and improvisational originality. But he was first attracted to the guitar as a youngster by a simpler, more basic sound.

“It was ‘50s rock and roll,” he said. “That’s where I heard it first. Chuck Berry, Little Richard and there was a duo, a guy named Mickey Baker—Mickey and Sylvia was the name of the duo. They had a tune called ‘Love is Strange,’ and they both played solid body Les Paul-style guitars and sang. Those kinds of players from that period were the ones that first attracted me to the guitar. When I heard the recordings, the electric guitar, I was really fascinated.

“My first guitar that my mother bought me was a little Harmony $40.00 steel-string guitar with F-holes in it. And right after I heard an electric guitar, I said I really want that—get me an electric guitar with the amplifier!”

But even as a teenager, he was not content with banging out three-chord rock-n-roll:

“I had a couple of friends where I grew up in Connecticut—one guy played alto saxophone, and his brother was a trombone player. And they were complete jazz fanatics, they were like beatniks. They lived in their mother’s house but they had a record collection and they lived upstairs and tried to act really hip.

“They started playing me Barney Kessel—I think that’s the first jazz guitar anyone ever played for me. It was a pretty easy transition in a way. Listening to Chuck Berry and rhythm & blues, and then you hear Barney Kessel who was a real bluesy kind of player, it’s not so hard to make the jump. It sounds a lot more sophisticated than Chuck Berry, but I could still relate to it.

“Then they played me Dave Brubeck, and I loved that; they played me Miles and I was sold. I knew that I had to study this music. I discovered Tal Farlow and Kenny Burrell. When I went away to Berklee, I discovered Wes Montgomery.

“Once I discovered jazz, the only reason I would play rock-n-roll was to make a living. There would be gigs where you had to play rock-n-roll and R&B—we played all these clubs where sailors would go and get completely drunk. So that was the only time I would go back into my rock days, to make money so I could support myself going to school. Later, in the late ‘60s, rock became more sophisticated and fusion came on the scene, and you had all this mixing of rock, ethnic music and jazz.”

Abercrombie’s relationship with the European ECM record label has been a musically satisfying one, enabling him to stretch out in adventurous directions.

“The fact that I’ve been able to record for ECM all these years,” he explained, “if anything, that company wants you to be experimental and try new things. They don’t want to hear standards; they want to hear something new and fresh. So I’m encouraged to do that.

“The songs are fairly well written. Some are just sketches, but most are full-blown songs. Just like playing a standard song, but the forms are more complex. They have odd numbers of bars, and they have quirky harmonies.”

His residency-closing concert next Monday night with the John Toomey Trio provides a rare opportunity to see him play live in this country.

“I hardly ever play here,” he said. “A couple of times in New York, maybe Chicago or DC, but almost all of my work is in Europe. It’s just the way things are—there are places you can play in this country, but the fact of the matter is the money is considerably lower than you’d make in Europe and the expenses of traveling around in the United States, it’s so big and you have to fly everywhere.

“I find myself doing residencies or workshops, like I’m doing at the University there. I do more of those things in this country, and when I go to Europe it’s more like concerts and clubs.”

copyright © 2006 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.