John Abercrombie, influential jazz guitarist

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John Abercrombie was an influential jazz guitarist and composer who came to prominence in the 1970s with a lyrical, improvisatory style that applied the swagger of rock-and-roll to the loose rhythms of jazz.

A leading guitarist of jazz fusion’s heyday in the 1970s, Abercrombie, who has died aged 72, sported a thick moustache and wavy hair, playing stringed instruments, including the acoustic mandolin, and the Roland guitar synthesizer, a device he once described as a “red electric safety pin.”

While his sound was sometimes wildly experimental, incorporating electric squawks and heavy reverb, Abercrombie’s four-decade career was largely defined by gentle, impressionistic guitar melodies. His music helped his long-time home, ECM Records, acquire a reputation as a haven for jazz musicians with a reflective, refined sound.

Abercrombie played with greats including saxophonists Jan Garbarek and Charles Lloyd, trumpeters Enrico Rava and Kenny Wheeler, and fellow guitarist Ralph Towner, whose classical style he accompanied on a pair of soaring guitar records, Sargasso Sea (1976) and Five Years Later (1981).

His subtle fretwork and understated stage presence as a bandleader led some critics and musicians to compare him to jazz guitarist Jim Hall, who died in 2013 and whom Abercrombie cited as a key influence, along with Wes Montgomery and pianist Bill Evans.

“He was really concerned with contributing to the overall sound of the group rather than calling attention to himself,” said Marc Copland, a friend and pianist who performed with Abercrombie at his final shows in late 2016. “He used to like to say on stage, ‘I like to pretend I’m a sideman in my own group.’ It would always get a chuckle, but he was kind of being serious.”

John Laird Abercrombie was born on 16 December 1944 in New York and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. His survivors include his wife of 31 years, the former Lisa Abram. When he was 14, his parents bought him an acoustic guitar with steel strings “like telephone cables,” Abercrombie once said, and he began imitating the rollicking style of Chuck Berry before turning to jazz.

He studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston – in part, he said, to avoid the Vietnam War draft – before moving to New York City, where he gained notice playing with drummer Chico Hamilton and contributed metallic guitar riffs to one of the strangest children’s albums ever made, The Stark Reality Discovers Hoagy Carmichael’s Music Shop (1970).

The record was a piece of psychedelic jazz rock in the mould of Miles Davis’ landmark album Bitches Brew – and aimed, ostensibly, at the Sesame Street crowd. It flopped but was rediscovered decades later by hip-hop artists including Schoolboy Q and the Black Eyed Peas.

Abercrombie performed with Dreams, a short-lived but pioneering jazz-rock outfit, before leading a group of his own on Timeless, his 1975 debut with ECM and one of his most acclaimed records. The album featured keyboardist Jan Hammer, who went on to score the theme to TV’s Miami Vice, and drummer Jack DeJohnette, who had played on Bitches Brew. The title track, music critic Larry Rohter wrote in a review for The Washington Post, was “a 12-minute masterpiece that conveys the feeling of drifting and floating dreaminess better than any recorded piece since Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way.”

Abercrombie followed it with Gateway (1976), which featured DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland in a group that intermittently toured and recorded for the next 20 years. The Gateway trio was one of Abercrombie’s best-known projects, but he said his most enjoyable ensemble may have been a recently formed quartet with Copland on piano, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron. The outfit assembled for the 2013 album 39 Steps and for Up and Coming, released in January.

“In a world of rampant populism, the description ‘musicians’ musician’ might become even more of a backhand compliment, but if anyone can defend its virtues, it’s American guitarist John Abercrombie,” jazz critic John Fordham wrote in a review for The Guardian. “The whole album is the quintessence of jazz power in reserve.”

Abercrombie was a lecturer in jazz at Purchase College, part of the State University of New York system, and said his musical style was in a constant state of development. “I am playing the music I want to play for now. The only thing that’s not right about it is it’s not as good as I want it yet,” he said in What Is This Thing Called Jazz?, a 2001 collection of interviews by consultant Batt Johnson. “I want to become like Miles [Davis] was and Louis Armstrong. I want to be vocal on the instrument without necessarily being technical. . . . The thing that gets you first is their music, just the sound of it. Then afterward you realise how difficult it was to play what they played.”

John Laird Abercrombie, jazz guitarist: born 16 December 1944; died 22 August 2017

© Washington Post


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