№ 3

John Aber­crom­bie

A Per­fect Kind of Freedom


This fea­ture, com­mis­sioned by Stu­art Broomer, was the cover story in the March–April 2003 edi­tion of Coda magazine.

Just ask John Aber­crom­bie if his work has changed over the past few years.

When I did, on a Novem­ber after­noon in Toronto in the mid­dle of his week’s engage­ment with Don Thomp­son and Terry Clarke at the Mon­treal Bistro, he quickly swung back nearly 30 years, to Time­less, his 1974 ECM debut. Soon, he started draw­ing lines to each stage in his career, show­ing how each shift informed the next — or how, in hind­sight, it had all seemed to tran­spire. He was expan­sive and artic­u­late, and he even left room for dis­agree­ment. Dates and anec­dotes cir­cled in and out: a tid­bit about an early organ trio, a din­ner with Man­fred Eicher long ago. Still, every­thing hung together with strik­ing clar­ity and per­fect modesty.

Of course, the career he was set­ting out to describe is one of remark­able sub­stance and scope. It’s now strange to think that John Aber­crom­bie first gained momen­tum in the mid­dle of the 1970s, the unpol­ished heart of fusion’s hey­day. He wasn’t held hostage by the noise and mus­cle; craft and care­ful lyri­cism were more to his taste. With a label that shel­tered him straight away, ECM, and a steady sup­ply of like-minded peers, Aber­crom­bie grad­u­ally refined his art, as a com­poser and as a guitarist.

When John Aber­crom­bie and I met last fall, at a down­town hotel just a few blocks from the Bistro, he spoke a great deal about his musi­cal past. He also talked about many of his long­time friend­ships and about the enor­mous changes in gui­tar tech­nol­ogy he’s seen since the late 1950s. He became par­tic­u­larly ani­mated when we talked about his cur­rent group, the quar­tet with Mark Feld­man, Marc John­son, and Joey Baron. Their disc, Cat ’n’ Mouse (ECM, 2002), his lat­est, was a real source of pride.

The Cat ’n’ Mouse project is in many ways a depar­ture for John Aber­crom­bie, and it seemed like a nat­ural place to start. This isn’t a worka­day band. It embraces freer music, some­thing Aber­crom­bie hasn’t always felt com­fort­able doing. Its sound — its basic con­fig­u­ra­tion — cer­tainly isn’t run-of-the-mill.

There’s some­thing about the set­ting of this par­tic­u­lar band,” he explained. “You’ve got vio­lin, string bass, and gui­tar. So it’s, really, strings and per­cus­sion in a way.”

Get­ting that sound was Abercrombie’s pri­mary moti­va­tion when he formed the group. Sure, he wanted to re-examine some of the abstract ele­ments he’d intro­duced on Open Land (his 1999 disc with Mark Feld­man, Kenny Wheeler, Joe Lovano, Dan Wall, and Adam Nuss­baum). But more than any­thing else, he envi­sioned a vio­lin — a violin’s colours — front and centre.

And I wanted Feld­man in par­tic­u­lar,” Aber­crom­bie added, “because he was the best vio­lin­ist that I knew of to nego­ti­ate my tunes.”

He’d actu­ally wanted to play with Mark Feld­man for years — ever since they met, teacher and stu­dent, at Banff in the mid ’80s. “Every time I’d hear him play, he was just blow­ing every­body away,” Aber­crom­bie recalled. “He made me really hear the vio­lin again. I always liked to lis­ten to clas­si­cal vio­lin; it’s one of my favourite instru­ments. And now I’m hear­ing this guy, Mark, from Chicago, who’s clas­si­cally trained, who can play a lot of the reper­toire. He can really play it. Yet he can play bebop. He can play free. He can play my tunes, which are not easy tunes to play. Some of the har­monic things: they’d be hard for a sax­o­phone player who knew a lot about har­mony. I mean they wouldn’t get it right away. But Feld­man is in there.”

After recon­nect­ing with Feld­man, Aber­crom­bie tar­geted musi­cians who, he believed, would also feel com­fort­able mov­ing in and out of more open music. He’d been writ­ing more con­ven­tional com­po­si­tions (which would even­tu­ally appear on Cat ’n’ Mouse), but he’d also been writ­ing what he called “lit­tle vehi­cles,” brief motifs designed to jump-start improvisation.

It’s a per­fect lit­tle band, my favourite band, for play­ing so-called ‘free impro­vised stuff,’ where there’s lit­tle or no talk about what you’re going to do. There might be a lit­tle send off, or there might be a lit­tle vehi­cle. Or some­times there might be no vehi­cle. But this band is so quick. Joey Baron is just one of the quick­est musi­cians I’ve ever encoun­tered. He can turn on a dime; he can do any­thing, absolutely any­thing. I knew him when he had hair! And he used to play with peo­ple like Car­men McRae. He’s just been through the whole gamut. So when he arrived at want­ing to play more abstract music it was a deci­sion based on what he really wanted to do. That’s the rea­son I like Joey, because he has that back­ground. Feld­man has that back­ground. Marc John­son def­i­nitely has that back­ground. So when we play abstract music it’s because we really want to.”

Cer­tainly the group’s instru­men­ta­tion is an essen­tial part of Abercrombie’s plan. “In a set­ting with just strings it really cre­ates more of a cham­ber effect. So it’s not as much like free jazz with sax­o­phones or trum­pets. It doesn’t sound like that. It has another qual­ity, which I find more inter­est­ing because it suits me. It sounds more musi­cal to my ears.”

To some, Abercrombie’s attrac­tion to open music might come as a sur­prise. He’s often dab­bled in freer sit­u­a­tions, but to embrace them, to make them cen­tral to a per­for­mance, is some­thing he’s shied away from. Yet he’s played impro­vised music for years: even as a stu­dent at Berklee in the mid ’60s.

There’s stuff I exper­i­mented with early on play­ing with Mick Goodrick back in his apart­ment [in Boston] when he first got a cas­sette player. We used to impro­vise free duets. I remem­ber we used to carry around a tape. Every once in a while we’d be on a gig together and we’d just want to check our­selves out. We were just being silly. And we’d put it on and other musi­cians would just look at us like we were com­pletely insane. Except for Char­lie Mar­i­ano, I remem­ber, who hap­pened to be nearby when we were play­ing the tape one­time. ‘Wow, what’s that. That’s pretty cool,’ he said. We knew there was a com­rade in arms.

So I’ve been think­ing about this kind of stuff. It had been in there for a while. I was never com­pletely turned off to this kind of impro­vi­sa­tion, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to play ‘Stella By Starlight’ and ‘Blues in F.’ That was what I wanted to do, you know.”

Gate­way, he sug­gests, the trio with Dave Hol­land and Jack DeJohnette, was prob­a­bly the first time he’d played open music with a band. “Even when we made the first Gate­way record [in 1975] I hadn’t done a lot of that kind of play­ing. But Dave and I got together once and we ran through a cou­ple of his lit­tle pieces in my old apart­ment in New York. He told me, ‘You have a real nat­ural sense of how to play this way.’ And that kind of got me inspired. And then when we actu­ally started to play with Gate­way. That’s one way I got into it.”

Another for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence, Aber­crom­bie remem­bered, was his duo with Ralph Towner. Often, they’d arrive at a rehearsal with bun­dles of songs. “Ralph would say, ‘Why don’t we link them together with some kind of free play­ing.’ OK, cool. So that’s what we would do. We would play a tune, and we might start out with some­thing atmos­pheric, and we’d work our way into it, and then we’d play free. We’d try to con­nect it, as the tune was trail­ing off, we’d go off into this other zone, make all these dif­fer­ent colours and sounds and effects and what­ever. And then usu­ally one of us had to change gui­tars, because in those days I was play­ing a man­dolin and an elec­tric and I had an acoustic and Ralph had a nylon-string and two 12-strings, one tuned to some strange chord. Some of the free episodes actu­ally became tunes. Or atmos­pheres, or areas, we would return to. They just became part of what we did. And that came out of free improvisation.”

But some­thing else also sets Abercrombie’s cur­rent quar­tet apart: it’s a real, work­ing band. Too often his stu­dio dates were just projects, one-offs. He rarely has groups that record and tour, then keep play­ing together.

For five years (start­ing in 1978) there was a quar­tet with Richie Beirach, George Mraz, and Peter Don­ald. Then in the late ’80s there was a trio with Marc John­son and Peter Ersk­ine. In the early ’90s he formed an organ trio with Dan Wall and Adam Nuss­baum, a group that still plays together from time to time.

The quar­tet with Beirach was very com­po­si­tional and very struc­tured in a way. Really nice. It was one of my first oppor­tu­ni­ties where I wrote a lot of songs and Richie wrote songs. It was co-operative in that sense, but it was my quar­tet. I got a chance to really write reg­u­larly for a band.

And then when I made the shift to play­ing with Marc John­son and Peter Ersk­ine I think I wanted to get a lit­tle more … I wanted to play louder! Not nec­es­sar­ily fusiony but a lit­tle more elec­tric. With the piano, with Beirach, that was impos­si­ble. You can only play so loud with an acoustic piano, although he [Beirach] really wasn’t inter­ested in play­ing the kind of music I wanted to play.

Pete [Ersk­ine] was per­fect. Here’s a drum­mer who’d played with Stan Ken­ton and Weather Report and then the bass player [Marc John­son] was Bill Evans’s bass player. I’d loved all the colours and stuff that Weather Report had done. And of course I was a Bill Evans fanatic from the early days. So this was kind of an ideal lit­tle trio for me to have for that period of time.

I was fool­ing around with the gui­tar syn­the­sizer, which I apol­o­gize for to a lot of peo­ple. Some of it was inter­est­ing but some of it was pretty hideous. But that was a good band for me to exper­i­ment with all that stuff because they were totally open to it. That’s where I started to play some freer, more open types of music. We played some pretty open, crazy stuff with that trio. And we also played stan­dard songs. So it was a chance to do a lot of dif­fer­ent stuff that I hadn’t been able to do. I could get into the more abstract and colour­ful areas, but I could also still play the Bill Evans song­book, which was my favourite stuff, and I had Marc John­son on bass. So it was kind of ideal for me.”

Here, Aber­crom­bie veered off into gui­tar talk; it’s some­thing he’s quite keen on. For all his accom­plish­ments as a com­poser and a band­leader, he’s still a real gui­tar player and a shrewd observer of the instrument’s affairs. Aber­crom­bie, 58, remem­bers gui­tar tech­nol­ogy in its infancy, crude and tem­pera­men­tal. He even recalls the first effect he ever bought: Tim’s Fuzzer Buzzer.

When I was start­ing to play there was Wes Mont­gomery, Jim Hall, Jimmy Rainey, Grant Green. All these peo­ple I used to see live. Basi­cally in those days you had a gui­tar and you had a con­nect­ing cable and you had an ampli­fier. And that’s all you had. There was no such thing as an ‘effect.’ Except some of the ampli­fiers did have lit­tle spring reverbs in them and some guys used them and most guys didn’t really care about it.”

While Aber­crom­bie comes directly out of the clas­sic jazz gui­tar tra­di­tion, he’s qui­etly stretched the instrument’s range. He’s always liked effects and the dif­fer­ent options they pro­vide; for a very long time now he’s had a bag of tools ready to go. Many of his musi­cal shifts have been marked by a change in sound — whether it’s a touch of reverb, a mound of dis­tor­tion (think, Billy Cob­ham), or an odd­ball syn­the­sizer patch.

Still, he’s never over­es­ti­mated the impor­tance of a processed sound. The gui­tar cer­tainly pro­vides a lot more pos­si­bil­i­ties than other instru­ments, he said. Effects allow the gui­tar to take on new char­ac­ter­is­tics, which is a bless­ing when you’re try­ing to play jazz. Gui­tarists, he observed, have always envied horn play­ers — espe­cially the long legato lines — and have often tried to sim­u­late breath. In other instances, gui­tarists have used the vol­ume pedal to move closer towards a vio­lin or a cello. Aber­crom­bie him­self finally hit a wall when the gui­tar synth came along.

It seemed at the time like the ulti­mate toy,” he said. “Now we can really sound like another instru­ment. But in the end that was the draw­back. You got so close that it was kind of a fan­tasy. But then in the end it wasn’t real. It was too fake. It was bet­ter to try to do some­thing with the lit­tle boxes and try to cre­ate a sound that really was some­thing in your head, that was an approx­i­ma­tion. Rather than with a syn­the­sizer where you just press a but­ton and you see “Flute 1” and “Flute 2.” … You’d spend so much time try­ing to pro­gram this damn thing, the days would go by and you’d be sit­ting there and your head would be fry­ing and you’d just be tweak­ing lit­tle buttons.”

Where is he today? He’s still using effects, but they’ve been inte­grated with real sub­tlety, organ­i­cally, into his whole approach. The noodling has been jettisoned.

Now,” he said, “I just play guitar.”

Look­ing ahead, Abercrombie’s upcom­ing projects cer­tainly keep him focused. There’s a brief trip to South Korea with Dan Wall and Adam Nuss­baum, and a pos­si­ble spring tour with Charles Lloyd. Then in Feb­ru­ary the quar­tet records the follow-up to Cat ’n’ Mouse. When we spoke he still hadn’t pre­pared music for the date.

He also alluded to a project that he’s had a tough time try­ing to sched­ule: a quar­tet ses­sion with Kenny Wheeler, Steve Swal­low, and Pete La Roca. ECM is on board. Now all he needs is a work­able date. The basic idea was inspired by the leg­endary Art Farmer-Jim Hall Quar­tet, of which Swal­low and La Roca formed the rhythm section.

For just one moment, set aside every­thing else: the gui­tar talk and the pos­si­bil­i­ties for play­ing freer music, the follow-up to Cat ’n’ Mouse and the dif­fer­ent tours this year. Aber­crom­bie would be delighted to get this spe­cial project off the ground.

That’s still prob­a­bly the strongest period of music for me,” he said, refer­ring to the mid-’60s Amer­i­can scene and the Farmer-Hall Quar­tet. “But I think that’s true with a lot of musi­cians. The stuff that you’re really first attracted to, that really grabs you when you’re a kid. If it’s really good and if it was really that influ­en­tial it will prob­a­bly hold up. It’s almost like it’s your par­ents. That’s fam­ily music. That’s the root of the tree.”