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.
As I get older, I find myself coming back to where I kind of started. That's what this new CD is about. It's a little more traditional sounding because that's music I was interested in the '60s. Now, here we are in 2012 and I'm going backwards in a way. I'm choosing music that was played a long time ago, but now I can really play it better. I guess you evolve, but you're really not aware of what's happening. You just try different things. For a while, it was fusion, and then I got into playing free jazz, and then I played with a lot of European musicians. Then I found myself in situations where I really didn't understand, where I didn't know how to play them. I had to figure it out.
As I got older everything started to come more together. I began to write more of my own music and understand harmony and theory and all that stuff better. I think once I started writing my own music and having my own bands, that's when I got more of a focus on what I wanted to do, personally. I still like to play other things. I like to be in situations where I don't know what's going to happen. With my own music I can control it more. I have more of a vision for it. As I get older, I'm dipping back into some of the older stuff.
After a few albums with Mark Feldman, Marc Johnson and Joey Baron, what made you want to switch up the line-up on the new album?
It would take too long to really tell the whole story and explain it all. Years ago, I had an idea of doing a similar record with trumpet, guitar, bass and drums. It was going to sort of be a tribute to another group I like with Art Farmer and Jim Hall. That was my idea and the producer for ECM really liked it, but for some reason we just weren't able to pull it all together. I couldn't get all the people I wanted involved. So I just kind of put it on the shelf for while. I said, "Well, I'll keep doing the thing with Feldman and I'll keep in that direction."
Then ECM got in touch with me and they said, "Well, why don't you think about doing some kind of tribute album, which, for them, is very unusual because they usually don't want those kinds of things. They usually want you to write your own music and be very different with each CD if you can. So it was their suggestion, and when I thought about it, I said, "Well, my last project I put on the shelf because I couldn't pull it together. But maybe this time let me think about what I want to do."
Instead of singling out one musician or one composer, I thought about going back to the '60s and doing several things, like looking at different musicians that influenced me and records that influenced me and seeing what I can pull together. So, that's what I did. I just kind of thought about all the stuff I listened to and picked the different recordings and then, of course, it came down the musicians. I knew I wanted Joey Baron, for sure, because I wanted to keep my thing with him going on.
I thought about saxophone and Lovano was sort of the perfect guy for me to choose because he comes from that -- he's a little younger than me -- but he plays from that generation. His father was a saxophone player out of Cleveland and Joe grew up playing all the standards and all that stuff. He played with big bands and he's developed his own style. I love the way he plays so he was just the perfect choice.
With bass players, I had several options, but I chose Drew Gress because he's somebody that can play in that tradition but he can also play other music if you want to. I'm also thinking of maybe having a band like this. Maybe not with Lovano -- I'd love to -- but he's a very busy character.
I'm going to do a tour in November with Joey Baron, Drew Gress and a wonderful saxophone player named Billy Drewes. He's an old friend of Lovano's, and he kind of plays a little bit like Joe, so I'm thinking this could be a new band for a while if there's enough interest. If people seem to like it, I'll try and do more gigs with it.
That's kind of what I'm thinking about, and, in the meantime, I still have this trio that's coming to Dazzle with Adam Nussbaum and Gary Versace. I've had an organ trio now for about the last twenty years with different organists. The main organist was a guy named Dan Wall. He's living and teaching in Oberlin, Ohio, and he doesn't want to leave home. So I can't get him to go on the road. He's a homebody these days. So I found a really great substitute with Gary Versace. So I still have an organ trio, and I still have the group with Feldman, even though we're not working right now. I'm looking towards this group with maybe a saxophone -- something like the recording.
In the meantime, I'm trying to practice and write and do what I do. I'm looking forward to playing Denver, and after Denver we're going on to California and we're going to play in Northern California and play the Monterey Jazz Festival. It'll be a five-day trip and then I'll be back home. I'm just trying different things.
You, know it's a rough time out here for everybody because there's not as much work. We're feeling all this economic pressure, too. There aren't as many gigs as there were, say, ten years ago. So the work situation is getting a little slower. You have to really look for things. So I'm really glad we're coming out there. I've played Denver, but I've never played the club.
How has been being on ECM for the past four decades? You've been with them pretty much since they started, right?
Since the early '70s, right. It's great on several levels. First of all, I'm still working with them. I've been working since about 1973 or so and just that alone is pretty unbelievable that you can stay with the same label and that ECM is still in business since there are so many labels that have gone out of business. So I'm very fortunate for that.
Working with Manfred [Eicher, ECM founder], for me, isn't perfect but it's close to perfect because he's really a great producer. He's what you call a hands-on producer. He likes to get involved. He doesn't just sit there. He's got a lot of suggestions. He becomes like another member of the band in terms of how things are being recorded. He has great suggestions about how to play something and so I always look to him to help me on these dates, and he's always very helpful. I've known him since 1973 or so we go way back. I'm very relaxed with him, but he's not an easy guy to work with. He's very demanding and he's got his own ideas and you have to work with him. He's a force.