John Laird Abercrombie (born December 16, 1944) is an American jazz guitarist, composer and bandleader. His work often explores jazz fusion, post bop, free jazz and avant-garde jazz. Abercrombie studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachuset...
John Laird Abercrombie (born December 16, 1944) is an American jazz guitarist, composer and bandleader. His work often explores jazz fusion, post bop, free jazz and avant-garde jazz. Abercrombie studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. He recorded his debut album, Timeless with Manfred Eicher's ECM label, and has recorded principally with this label since. Abercrombie has played with Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette, Michael Brecker and Randy Brecker, to name a few. He is known for his spare, understated, and eclectic style and his work with organ trios.
John Abercrombie was born on December 16, 1944, in Port Chester, New York. His family moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, where he grew up. He picked up the guitar at the age of 14. He began by playing along to Chuck Berry, but discovered jazz by listening to Barney Kessel. He attended Berklee College of Music from 1962 to 1966 and studied under famed guitar educator Jack Petersen. He often played with other students at Paul's Mall, a jazz club in Boston connected to the larger club Jazz Workshop. The gigs at Paul's Mall facilitated meetings with organist Johnny Hammond Smith and the Brecker Brothers (saxophone player Michael Brecker and his brother, trumpet player Randy Brecker). Smith asked Abercrombie to play with him, and they performed at Boston's Big M club as well as on tour.
Abercrombie graduated from Berklee in 1967 and briefly attended North Texas State University before moving to New York in 1969. Once there he quickly became one of the "most in-demand session players," recording with Gil Evans in 1974, Gato Barbieri in 1971, and Barry Miles in 1972 among others. In 1969, he joined Dreams, one of the first jazz rock bands, which rose to prominence in the late 60s and early 70s and featured the Brecker Brothers and drummer Billy Cobham. He also recorded on several of Cobham's albums, Crosswinds, Total Eclipse and Shabazz. Abercrombie's following began to grow at this point, largely due to Dreams's growing success. They found themselves sharing the bill with such major rock acts as the Doobie Brothers, and Abercrombie found his career taking a direction he had not expected. "One night we appeared at the Spectrum in Philadelphia and I thought, 'what am I doing here?'. It just didn't compute."
Then, in 1973 German jazz producer and founder of the ECM label Manfred Eicher invited Abercrombie to record for ECM. He then recorded his first solo album, Timeless, in 1974 with drummer Jack DeJohnette and Hammond organist Jan Hammer. The album was well received and has been critically acclaimed. This release marked the beginning of Abercrombie's fruitful relationship with ECM. Its understated and subdued sound was also representative of the music Abercrombie continued to make over the course of his career. Abercrombie followed this release in November 1975 with the album Gateway, recorded with DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland. The second album with this trio, referred to as the Gateway Trio, was released in June 1978.
Other Work as a Leader:
After the Gateway albums, Abercrombie changed his playing style and instrumentation, moving toward a more traditional format. He recorded Arcade, the Abercrombie Quartet, and M with pianist Richie Beirach, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Peter Donald. Abercrombie said of this quartet, "it was extremely important to have that group . . . it was my first opportunity to really be a leader and write consistently for the same group of musicians." During the mid-1970s and into the 1980s, he also contributed to ensembles led by DeJohnette and took part in a number of other sessions for ECM, occasionally doubling on electric mandolin. He also toured with guitarist Ralph Towner. During the mid-1980s, he continued to play standards with Mraz, and he played in a bop duo with guitarist John Scofield. Abercrombie began experimenting with a guitar synthesizer in 1984 while recording in a trio with Marc Johnson on bass and Peter Erskine on drums, also using the synthesizer while working in Paul Bley's free-jazz group in 1986. He continued to do so until around 1990. This trio released three albums during this time showcasing Abercrombie's synthesizer work: Getting There with Michael Brecker in 1987, Current Events in 1988, and John Abercrombie, Marc Johnson, & Peter Erkstine in 1989. The synthesizer allowed him to play, as he described it "louder, more open music."
The 1990s and 2000s marked a time of constantly changing associations. In 1992, Abercrombie, drummer Adam Nussbaum and Hammond organist Jeff Palmer made a free-jazz recording. He then started a trio with Nussbaum and organist Dan Wall. They released While We Were Young and Speak of the Devil in 1993, and Tactics' in 1997. Abercrombie also added trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, violinist Mark Feldman and saxophonist Joe Lovano to the trio to record Open Land in 1998. The Gateway band even reunited for a 1995 release, Homecoming. Throughout the 1990s and beyond, Abercrombie has worked with jazz musicians, such as with John Scofield for the 1993 release Solar. He has also had a partnership with guitarist, pianist and composer Ralph Towner.
Legacy and style:
John Abercrombie continues to tour and record heavily and remains strongly associated with ECM, with whom he has had a relationship for at least 40 years. His playing style is "spare" and "understated," and he has managed to continue to experiment and push the boundaries of jazz while retaining a firm grounding in jazz tradition. He also utilizes electronic effects and timbre changes to achieve an emotional effect. As he said in an interview, "I'd like people to perceive me as having a direct connection to the history of jazz guitar, while expanding some musical boundaries."