Peter Erskine Remembers John Abercrombie

Drummer pays homage to his old friend, the inventive guitarist

AbercrombieQuartet_RickLaird

(L to R] Peter Erskine, John Abercrombie, Michael Brecker, Marc Johnson (photo by Rick Laird)

The guitarist John Abercrombie was probably the most interesting and compelling musician I’ve played with, and one of the funniest, too. Early morning departures were always more bearable when John would offer an observation like: “You know, there’s nothing like a good cup of coffee in the morning — and this is nothing like a good cup of coffee.” Manfred Eicher became “My Man, Fred.” “I’ll be right back” became “I’ll be white black.” And so on. But his music making was totally serious and uncompromising.

One time, when the trio [with John, Marc Johnson and Erskine] finished its first set of a week-long stint at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase in Chicago, and after some bewilderingly modern-sounding stuff, Joe Segal got up to announce the coming attractions, punctuated with a “Be sure to come back next week to hear some REAL music” admonishment to the audience. I was talking to some friends when I heard this, reacting by saying, “Hey Joe, come on!” and Joe replied, “Don’t you ‘come on’ me; we’re going to have a talk about this as soon as I’m done announcing up here,” which was followed by a challenge issued from Marc Johnson: “Why don’t we have an open discussion about it right here and now?” The audience started to get in on the act, cat-calling and the like. John really had it out with Joe after that in the lobby. All was made well when we agreed to include at least one Charlie Parker tune during each set.

My first memory of John Abercrombie was listening to the debut album of the band Dreams and wondering, “Who in the world is this guitar player?!” coupled with, “…and what does he think he’s doing, playing outside of the chord changes like that?” John was the first musician, for me, to defy convention in such an original way. I imagined that he must be an anarchist of the highest order. Imagine my surprise a year or so later when I chanced to meet him at an espresso bar in Milan, Italy; he was the nicest guy imaginable. As fate and luck would have it, we wound up being musical partners for quite a few years, and I am not able to count the miles we traveled together, in trio with Marc Johnson or in quartet with Marc & Michael Brecker, or as part of Kenny Wheeler’s Quintet and big band…my own group…with the WDR Big Band in Cologne…and so on.

One more anecdote, regarding a session with Makoto Ozone, the prodigal pianist from Japan who played in Gary Burton’s band. Gary was producing the recording, which was taking place in a very large mid-Manhattan studio (Clinton Studios), and John and Marc were playing as well. One of the songs was a bit of an epic affair: very complicated melody and chords as well as structure, with challenging ensemble parts sprinkled throughout the piece. We rehearsed a few times in the studio and commenced to do a take. All seemed to be going quite well, and we had successfully navigated our way through the melody, guitar solo, interlude, and were deep into the piano solo when all of a sudden we heard “Oh sh*t!” and some out-of-time/out-of-key guitar strums; the universal indicator to STOP THE TAKE, right? Everyone groaned a bit, shaken out of our concentration and confidence in how well that take was going, and Makoto asked, “What happened? Why did we stop?” John Abercrombie, his face flushed with embarrassment, said, “Hey, I’m sorry Makoto, I got lost.” Makoto demanded, “WHERE did you get lost?” Suddenly a voice appeared as if from the heavens; it was Gary speaking to us on the talkback mic that was being pumped through some very large speakers near the ceiling of this very large studio. And Gary said, “Makoto, if he KNEW where he had gotten lost, then he wouldn’t have GOTTEN lost!”

With John’s passing, we lost the most original musician I ever met.

.