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John Abercrombie, Wry And Exploratory Jazz Guitarist, Dies At 72

John Abercrombie, a touchstone in jazz-rock guitar whose first album was released in 1974, died Aug. 22, 2017.
John Rogers
Courtesy of ECM Records
John Abercrombie, a touchstone in jazz-rock guitar whose first album was released in 1974, died Aug. 22, 2017.

John Abercrombie, an intrepid and deeply lyrical guitarist who made a formative contribution to jazz-rock before refining a judicious, poetic iteration of post-bop, died on Tuesday at Hudson Valley Hospital, in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y. He was 72.

His death was confirmed by ECM Records, which noted that Abercrombie died after a long illness. ECM released Abercrombie's first album, Timeless (1974) as well as his last, Up and Coming (2017); he appears on dozens of other albums on the label, as a leader, a co-leader and a sideman.

"John could go anywhere – rhythmically, melodically, harmonically – at the drop of a hat," drummer Jack DeJohnette told NPR, who maintained a more than four-decade association with Abercrombie. "He had a very warm sound, and always played with sensitivity, dynamics. He could create atmosphere with his comping, and through his great use of space."

Abercrombie was a confident but unassuming artist, whose abundant gifts did not include the knack for self-promotion. He emerged in the immediate wake of electric-guitar trailblazers like Sonny Sharrock and John McLaughlin but, at least temperamentally, he belonged more to the generation a decade or so his junior: cheerful omnivores like Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Bill Frisell.

Abercrombie's music was likewise difficult to fix on a continuum, shifting with ease from pristine acoustic clarity to a synthetic glow, from conflagrant fury to glassy calm. The unifying thread was an alert sensitivity to his musical surroundings, and a willingness to serve the larger whole. To the extent that this was chameleonic, it involved a changing of colors more than shape or form.

Abercrombie often said that he developed his pioneering jazz-rock style out of necessity, lacking available role models. "I had to figure things for myself," he told Ted Panken in a 2012 interview for Jazziz. "I grabbed onto every device I had in my arsenal — my knowledge of harmony and the guitar, the few little fuzztones or pieces of gear that I used at the time — and tried to fit in. When I'd play with Jack and Dave Holland, or some other players, I responded to what I was hearing around me, and let the sound of it all teach me what I was supposed to do."

John Laird Abercrombie was born in Port Chester, N.Y. on Dec. 16, 1944, the son of John Abercrombie and the former Elizabeth Beattie. He grew up in Greenwich, Conn., where he began playing guitar in his early teens, inspired at first by rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues — Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Bill Haley.

His first jazz guitar hero was Barney Kessel; the two most influential were Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall. But inspiration came equally from non-guitarists with a lyrical style, like Miles Davis and Bill Evans.

Abercrombie studied at the Berklee School of Music, sharing a room for a time with Jan Hammer. ("He played in a strip joint in Boston," Abercrombie told Panken, "and I'd run down and sit in with him before the strippers came on.") He spent a few years working with the soul-jazz organist Johnny "Hammond" Smith before moving to New York in 1970, where he was soon in high demand as a sideman with drummer Chico Hamilton and others.

Timeless, with DeJohnette and keyboardist Jan Hammer, provides a textbook illustration of Abercrombie's fluidity; from one angle an exploratory entry in the organ trio tradition, and from another a blazing dispatch from fusion's second wave. The album was well received in its time, but has since acquired the patina of a touchstone. (It has also been a popular source sample, notably on tracks by Slum Village, Boards of Canada, and Ab-Soul with Kendrick Lamar.)

Abercrombie's second release for ECM, Gateway, introduced a collective trio by the same name, with DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland. This group worked more in a searching chamber-jazz mode, but with keen attunement to the then-recent precedent of three-piece rock bands like the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream.

Gateway's ringing, wide-open sensibility comes across clearly in the album's opening track, a Holland composition called "Back-Woods Song." Abercrombie's guitar solo provides the central narrative thread, but there's no way to disentangle his ethereal scrawl from the earthier rumblings of DeJohnette and Holland.

Back in Boston while at Berklee, Abercrombie had formed an affiliation with the Brecker BrothersRandyon trumpet, Michaelon tenor saxophone. He rejoined them in a fusion collective called Dreams, featuring Billy Cobham on drums. (He also appeared on several of Cobham's albums.) By the end of the '70s he was ready to move away from jazz-rock's surging center, toward a lighter, more pliable form.

He recorded in a delicate duo format, respectively with guitarist Ralph Towner and pianists Richie Beirach and Andy LaVerne. He also led a series of well-regarded combos, including an excellent trio with Marc Johnson on bass and Peter Erskine on drums. (It occasionally expanded to a quartet with the sterling addition of Michael Brecker.) Abercrombie also revisited the organ trio format, in a group with Dan Wall on organ and Adam Nussbaum on drums.

At some point in the '90s, Abercrombie officially stopped using a guitar pick, choosing to use his thumb as the only plectrum. This change brought out a fuller, more rounded tone in his playing, which suited the music he was playing: a kind of springy chamber-jazz, notably with a quartet that included Johnson, violinist Mark Feldman and drummer Joey Baron.

Abercrombie's last few albums featured the rubbery rhythm team of Baron and bassist Drew Gress, with either Joe Lovano on saxophone or Marc Copland on piano. "Playing guitar and piano together can be problematic, but with John it was effortless," Copland recalled in an email. "We both liked to leave space, and often were rewarded with beautiful chordal washes of color."

The title of this album, Up and Coming, reflects Abercrombie's wry humor, but it also points toward an odd truth, that he was at once revered on his instrument and somehow underrated, or at least overshadowed.

"He should have had even more recognition for his contribution," said DeJohnette. "When you go back and examine it, you can hear that warm, Jim Hall thing, but John definitely developed his own distinct voice on the guitar. He could really come together, adapt to any situation. But always with his own unique voice in the mix."

Abercrombie is survived by his wife, Lisa, whom he married in 1986.

Copyright 2022 WBGO. To see more, visit WBGO.

Corrected: August 23, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
This article originally cited Abercrombie's birthplace as Rye, N.Y. — he was born in Port Chester.
Nate Chinen
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