john abercrombie, 1944-2017

john abercrombie. photo by john rogers.

I stumbled upon the music of John Abercrombie as a high school senior near at the end of 1975. With a newly discovered fondness for jazz that was limited largely to fusion, I checked out the guitarist’s then-current debut album “Timeless” because it listed former Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboardist Jan Hammer as part of the trio Abercrombie fronted for the record. The music inside was, to use a tired term, mindblowing. It was jarring, it was cool. It grooved, it meditated. It rocked, it reflected. I was hooked.

But what made the catalog Abercrombie accumulated over the next 42 years with the German-rooted ECM label so striking and appealing was its diversity. Next in line, were two trio albums with Gateway – “Gateway” (1976) and “Gateway 2” (1978) – that placed Abercrombie alongside drummer Jack DeJohnette (who also played on “Timeless”) and bassist Dave Holland. The three took on everything from free-style improvs to rugged ensemble swing. Also in 1978 came the sublime “Characters,” a solo but multi-dubbed guitar album that created inner dialogues the way Bill Evans did on his groundbreaking “Conversations with Myself” albums from the 1960s.

Next up were three quartet recordings in quick succession – “Arcade” (1978), “Abercrombie Quartet” (1979) and “M” (1980) – that reunited the guitarist with the great New York pianist Richie Beirach to create an ensemble sound rich in swing, atmosphere, compositional design and brilliant but exquisitely unforced improvisation. All three were reissued early in an essential box set titled “The First Quartet” (2015).

Bookending almost all of this were two duet recordings with longtime ECM guitar mate Ralph Towner – “Sargasso Sea” (1976) and “Five Years Later” (1981) – built around acoustic/electric ambience that, in many ways, defined the mystery, mood and spaciousness of ECM music from that era.

Think of that – nine remarkable albums released in a space of roughly six years that worked as a single, extended introduction to one of the most original guitar stylists of his day. And that doesn’t even count the fine ECM records by DeJohnette, Jan Garbarek, Collin Walcott, Kenny Wheeler and Dave Liebman that featured the guitarist as a sideman.

Abercrombie, who died last night at the age of 72, never looked back after that. The following three decades brought more great bands, more splendid recordings and more stylistic possibilities, like the lusciously hushed sound he created by dispensing with guitar picks and playing largely with his thumb. That reserved but regal update was displayed on his most recent (and presumably final) album, ironically titled “Up and Coming.” I’ve reached for that record many times for weekend morning listening ever since its release last winter.

Abercrombie played Lexington only twice. Curiously, those performances were on successive years. The first was a November 1981 concert with Towner at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall, the other an October 1982 Gateway show at the Singletary Center. The former remains one of my favorite entries in UK’s longrunning Spotlight Jazz Series. I missed the Gateway set, having been assigned to cover a Kenny Rogers concert that night at Rupp Arena. We all make sacrifices.

But my favorite performance memory of Abercrombie was a November 2007 show in Knoxville. With the entire city consumed by a University of Tennessee football game the following afternoon, Abercrombie played to a small but appreciative audience with a quartet that included violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Joey Baron. The delicacy and drama summoned between guitar and violin on “Vingt Six” typlified the quiet but powerfully emotive music Abercrombie dispensed with sagely eloquence late in his career.

“He plays the guitar better than ever,” wrote the late musician and author Mike Zwerin while working as a critic for the Paris-based International Herald Tribune in 1999. “But technique, speed – (they’re) not really the point any more. He’s no longer concentrating on improving what he plays. He’s after what he has not yet played. It’s about attitude.”

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