John Abercrombie on how even jazz players are feeling the brunt effects of the down economy
As a teenager in the early '60s, guitarist John Abercrombie had some key recordings that helped shape his musical focus, including Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, John Coltrane's Crescent, Sonny Rollins's The Bridge, Ornette Coleman's This Is Our Music and Bill Evans's Interplay. On Abercrombie's latest effort, the outstanding Within a Song, he pays tribute to those artists by interpreting songs from each of those albums, as well as turning in a few originals.
In advance of his two-night stand at Dazzle this week, we recently spoke with Abercrombie about the new album, the effect Jim Hall (who played on the original recordings of The Bridge and Interplay) had on his playing, the evolution of his guitar style and being on ECM records for the last four decades.
Westword: Within a Song was based on some of the albums that shaped you musical vision in a way, right?
John Abercrombie: Yeah. I mean, that whole CD is about things that I heard in the '60s when I was growing up in Boston and going to the Berklee School. I was just getting into music. Everything on there I heard in the early '60s, and it influenced me probably more than anything.
What was it about those albums that really resonated with you when you first heard them?
I think it was just different than other jazz that I heard. They were like after bebop so there was a little more space, and they were a little more lyrical. A little easier to understand in a funny way because the bebop stuff always sounded too hard to me -- I mean, real hard bop. Like when I heard that, I never thought I'd be able to play it. But when I heard a lot of this stuff, it just seemed more melodic and lyrical, so I was able to grab on to it better. I think that's what really got me into wanting to play jazz more than '50s bebop because it was a little more melodic; less notes and easier to hear somehow yet still unbelievably creative. It was just a different kind of way to play.
What was it about Sonny Rollins's The Bridge that really hit you? Did Jim Hall's playing on there kind of immediately...
Oh yeah. Of course, I'm a guitar player, so I was interested in guitar players and how they fit into jazz. I had heard some other guys, but I hadn't heard Jim Hall yet. It was my first exposure to Jim Hall. When I heard it, it was just something about the way he played that also seemed very different than guys before him. He didn't play as many notes, but he just had this beautiful sound, and he was able to accompany Sonny Rollins in a way that seemed really different to me. I mean, I didn't know what it was because I was too young to know anything, but I just knew I liked the way it sounded.
Jim seemed to have bridged the gap from, like, old bebop players into more modern players. Him and Wes Montgomery were the two guys that, for me, kind of bridged the gap. They seemed more modern than everybody else. They seemed to be able to adapt to these more modern situations where some of the older guys wouldn't have fit in. As good as they were, they just wouldn't have sounded right.
So, when I heard Jim it was just kind of a revelation. He was so melodic I could follow his solos and could follow what he was doing kind of, and so I said, "Maybe I want play like this." So I used him as a role model for many years.
What other players did you use as role models early on?
Early on, it was guys like Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Herb Ellis, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green. I mean, I grew up listening to all these guys. And Pat Martino, who's the same age as me, and George Benson -- they came a little bit later. But then I heard Jim Hall; it was just sort of another world. I mean, he didn't play as fast and technical as the other guys. I don't think he can. He doesn't have the kind of blazing guitar chops that George Benson has, but he has something else that resonated with me. I think it was just musicality and how he was able to fit into different situations.
Then I started buying everything with Jim Hall on it. Every record that Jim was a sideman I bought. It was great. He just seemed to be able to play with anybody. Everything I heard him play, every record he was on, where he was a sideman, he, musically, did the right thing, whether it was with Sonny Rollins or Bill Evans or Paul Desmond or whoever he was recording with; it just seemed kind of perfect to me. I said, "Jesus, this guy has really got it covered." He can really just fit into these situations. I think that's what also impressed too was that he was able to play with so many different kinds of people. He seemed a little more creative than the other guys.
The other guys were who I really heard in the beginning. The first guy was Barney Kessel. I was just completely floored by him because he swung really hard and he had a great feel. But then, like I say, later Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery were the two guys who kind of turned it around for me. I tried to play like them for years, but then I realized I couldn't so I gave up that. But their influence stayed with me, you know, really strong.
How long did it take for you to kind of develop your own thing?
Well, I don't think you even try sometimes. You just sort of keep playing and one day you sort of wake up you play something and you realize that it's you. You kind of become aware that it's you playing, and if you play a certain phrase or idea you say, "Oh, I've played that before. That sounds like something I play." Then you start to kind of hone in on it and try to develop what you're hearing in your own playing. I don't think anybody really super consciously tries to develop a style to play. It just sort of happens and then one day, like I said, you wake up and you realize, "This is how I play."
I'm still working on it. That's what's nice about playing music. You can do it until you drop dead. You just keep going and keep improving. As long as you're physically able to do it you can just keep getting better and developing. So it's kind of a lifelong thing.
How would you say your guitar style has evolved over the years?
I started out trying to play more straight ahead jazz. I went to Berklee in the early '60s when it was a brand new school and so there was no fusion music. There wasn't a lot of mixing together of different kinds of music at that time so jazz was kind of pure jazz. Then in the late '60s things started to change. Jazz musicians started listening to rock and roll and you had a lot of coming together of jazz musicians wanting to play more rock influenced music.
So I kind of got caught up in that. So my whole thing changed in the late '60s. I started playing a solid body guitar. I started using wah-wah pedals and fuzz tones because that's what everybody was doing. You kind of get caught up in this music. So the way I evolved was playing straight ahead jazz into playing more fusion-type stuff just because I was young enough to get into it.