John Abercrombie, Guitarist and Composer, Dies

Inventive guitarist recorded over 60 albums as a leader or co-leader

John Abercrombie performs at the 2016 Detroit Jazz Festival  image 1
Marek Lazarski

John Abercrombie performs at the 2016 Detroit Jazz Festival

The inventive guitarist John Abercrombie died on Aug. 22, after a long illness, according to ECM Records. Abercrombie was 72 years old and resided in upstate New York.

Abercrombie had a long and fruitful association with ECM, recording dozens of albums for the label as a leader, co-leader and sideman, starting with his first recording in 1974—Timeless featuring drummer Jack DeJohnette and organist/pianist Jan Hammer. Abercrombie often recorded with DeJohnette, including albums and tours with the Gateway Trio with Dave Holland and the New Directions band with Lester Bowie and Eddie Gomez.

In a profile by David R. Adler in JazzTimes, Abercrombie said about his then 30-year relationship with ECM: “I’ve known [producer] Manfred Eicher for that long. And I’m still recording for him. There aren’t many who can say that.” A few of the others who could say that were peers and musical associates of Abercrombie, including DeJohnette, Holland and Ralph Towner. “I met them all when I first came to New York in 1970,” he told Adler. “I always felt close to them, and people like [Dave] Liebman, Richie Beirach, Marc Copland. We wound up in lofts together; we kind of grew up together. It was a very experimental time. We played in different situations, shared a certain thing. And we’ve always managed to keep in contact. There’s always this feeling when you see one of those guys that ‘we go back.’ We go back to those days. We remember when things were a certain way.”

A statement from the label read: “He will be much missed, for his sensitive musicality, his good companionship, and his dry humor which enhanced many a session.” Indeed Abercrombie had a wry sense of humor, often self-deprecating. “Probably the most interesting and compelling musician I’ve played with, and one of the funniest, too,” wrote Peter Erskine in an email to JT. “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”

Abercrombie was born on Dec. 22, 1944, in Port Chester, N.Y., and began playing guitar by imitating Chuck Berry and other rock-and-rollers, but soon shifted to jazz by the likes of Barney Kessel. He attended Berklee School of Music during 1962-1966 and studied with guitar teacher Jack Petersen, but it was gigging around Boston that had perhaps a greater impact on his development as a musician. At local venues there, Abercrombie played with Randy and Michael Brecker and other musicians who would go on to change the music. He would later study briefly at North Texas State, but likewise it was the gigs that made the man.

In 1969 he joined the seminal jazz-rock band Dreams, along with the Brecker brothers and Billy Cobham. The group capitalized on its electric sound and appeal to a young audience immersed in rock. “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?’” wrote Erskine. “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.”

Randy Brecker also remembers the first time he heard Abercrombie. “I first met ‘Crumbles’ in late 1966 or so, when he was with Johnny ‘Hammond’ Smith and somehow came up to my small apartment on Jones Street,” Brecker wrote to JT. “When we started to audition guitar players for Dreams in 1969, he came up there with his trusty wah-wah on every tune, and was so melodic, original and humorous at the same time, he got the gig immediately. I don’t think it was really his ‘cup of tea’ so to speak. He wanted to play more ‘open’ music so eventually he left, but we were again joined together in Billy Cobham’s band for a couple years around 1974-75, right before the Brecker Brothers came about, then we continued to play every now and then in quartet with Marc Johnson and Adam Nussbaum.”

After recording his first album for ECM in 1974, Abercrombie began collaborating with a wide range of innovative jazz players, including DeJohnette, Holland, Towner and John Scofield, who like Erskine had heard Abercrombie before he met him. “I first heard John in the early ‘70s when I was just learning jazz guitar,” said Scofield. “He struck me as an absolutely modern player who was using some ‘rock’ guitar sounds but still firmly in jazz tradition and incorporating the language of 60’s new jazz, Miles, Coltrane etc. He was so creative and free. Then I met him in ’74 and we became close friends. He showed me the way when I first moved to New York. Everybody loved John. We had so much fun together!”

He recorded nearly two albums a year as a co-leader or leader, plus appeared as a sideman on many more dates, including most memorably on four albums with Charles Lloyd, typified by the powerful The Water Is Wide.

Among the bands that he co-led was the New Directions group with DeJohnette, Bowie and Gomez, with whom he recorded New Rags and New Directions for ECM. Perhaps harkening back to some of his classic jazz guitar influences as well as that early gig with Johnny “Hammond” Smith, Abercrombie would return to organ-based groups over the years, collaborating with Jeff Palmer and Dan Wall in a succession of recordings for ECM and other labels.

A sociable curmudgeon, Abercrombie liked to play with like-minded guitarists like Scofield, Towner, Rudy Linka and Joe Beck. And for the last 10 years or so of his career, he played in a group that featured Marc Copland, Drew Gress and Adam Nussbaum or Joey Baron. Nussbaum was a particularly favored compadre who played drums on a few dozen albums with Abercrombie.

In 2003 Abercrombie suffered a devastating loss of the family home in Putnam Valley, N.Y., to a fire that destroyed the house, many of his guitars and all of his recordings, and the family pet cat, which seemed to haunt him more than the loss of the guitars. He told Adler in 2004, “The guitars are, in a way, the least. You’d think I’d be really upset about it, but I wasn’t that upset. When you have 12 or 13 instruments you can’t play them all.”

Nonetheless the losses were considerable. “I had an old Gibson 175 [pictured on the cover of Marc Copland’s Savoy disc Second Look],” he explained to Adler. “Three handmade archtops went up, my old Ibanez, a gold top Les Paul, a Hamer chambered guitar. I had some really pretty things. I probably lost about 12 instruments. Also, my component system in my music room: a Walter Woods power amp and a Mesa/Boogie TriAxis preamp which was real old, my effects processor and a couple of matching speakers, really nice stuff, all of it went up. That was the sound I used for about 15 years when I recorded. My 6-foot Yamaha piano was still there, but it was completely fried. That was really sad, because I spent a lot of time with that piano.”

Although Abercrombie generally favored the electric guitar in performance, his sound was clearly a hybrid of rock sound and jazz feel.  He quickly developed a singular style that emphasized fluid runs, minimal notes and angular phrasing, sharing a sensibility with peers like Scofield, Towner and Pat Metheny, but standing alone with an instantly recognizable sound.

ECM’s statement upon Abercrombie’s death commented on his hybrid of styles and influences: “A creative writer of jazz tunes, John also loved to play freely as much as he loved to play standards. Many of his albums combine all of these resources, unified by his fluid, silvery tone and improvisational eloquence. In conversation he would speak of his enduring fondness for Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery, primary influences, and also of the liberating examples of Ornette Coleman and Jimi Hendrix; Bill Evans’ sense of lyricism was also of crucial importance to him.”

“He was just a complete original, always playing melodically just what he heard in his head, never a wasted chord or note, and never repeating himself,” wrote Randy Brecker. “A wonderful composer too, with the greatest sense of wry/ironic humor in both his playing and personality. His impression of Julia Child was spot-on and just hilarious. What a character.”

Read Mitchell Seidel’s At Home piece with John Abercrombie.

Read David R. Adler’s profile of John Abercrombie.

See John Abercrombie’s discography on ECM.