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Three Gems of John Abercrombie Easily Overlooked

Joe Barth

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JGT contributor Joe Barth, “Though John’s albums for ECM are wonderful and significant in jazz history, two of my three favorites were recorded on other labels”.

As a kid in Greenwich, Connecticut John Abercrombie (born December 1944) was taken with the singing duo of Mickey and Silvia featuring early jazz guitarist and educator Mickey Baker.Later he was struck deeply by the guitar artistry of Barney Kessel and decided to major in jazz guitar at Berklee College.Influenced by Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, and George Benson, it would be Jim Hall who would impact him the greatest.While playing in two fusion bands, Dreams (with Michael and Randy Brecker) and the Billy Cobham Band, German record producer Manfred Eicher would invite him to record an album for his newly formed ECM Records. For that album (Timeless) John would choose drummer Jack DeJohnette and college roommate Jan Hammer, of Mahavishnu Orchestra fame, to play the organ.Throughout John’s forty-year association with ECM, he would record over thirty albums for the label as a leader and another twenty albums for them as a sideman.He also recorded many more albums for other labels.

In 1975, he formed the Gateway trio with DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland. Another significant trio for John was with Marc Johnson on bass and drummer Peter Erskine.John told me that one of the highpoints of his career was a 1976 tour and album (Sargasso Sea) with fellow ECM fingerstyle guitarist Ralph Towner. Later in life, John suffered a stroke and died in 2017.

Though his albums for ECM are wonderful and significant in jazz history, two of my three favorites were recorded on other labels.

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The Hudson Project;  Concord Records  SCD  9024-2  John Abercrombie: guitar; Bob Mintzer: tenor sax; John Patitucci: bass; Peter Erskine: drums  2000

I begin with my favorite Abercrombie album.This was a project sponsored by instrument accessory manufacturers and recorded at the Manhattan Center in New York in 1998. No well-worn standards here.All songs were written by the four musicians and are great songs that one will want to listen to over and over again.

The album begins with Bob Mintzer’s “Runferyerlife” composed on what musicians refer to as rhythm changes. Bob has done this “barn-burner” with his big band and in other settings but this is my favorite rendition.  All the solos are great but Abercrombie’s has this serpentine intertwining throughout. Next up is Patitucci’s “Labor Day,” a ballad with a sense of drive followed by Abercrombie’s “Little Swing” that seems to have a floating feeling. Peter Erskine’s “Cat and Kittens” built around a funky drum cadence and a melody that hooks the listener immediately.  Patitucci’s “The Well” starts as a bass solo that builds into the full ensemble.  Peter Erskine resurrects his mid-1980s “Bass Desires” that he wrote for bassist Marc Johnson’s album of the same title and featured the guitar duet of Bill Frisell and John Scofield.  Here Abercrombie, inspired by Frisell and Scofield, plays an incredibly satisfying lengthy solo. After Abercrombie’s “That’s for Sure” the album ends with Mintzer’s “Modern Day Tuba” in which all four musicians solo in fine form.

The Nuttree Quartet’s Something Sentimental:  Kind of Blue Records  KOB 10022; John Abercrombie: guitar; Dave Liebman: sax; Jay Anderson: bass; Adam Nussbaum: drums  2007

Nuttreeis the translation of drummer Adam Nussbaum’s surname from German to English.This is the second of the two “Nuttree” albums which features Jay Anderson’s standup bass instead of Hammond organ and Dave Liebman on soprano sax instead of Gary Versace on tenor sax.The album begins with “Poinciana” where the intro is played in unison by Liebman and Abercrombie before Liebman plays the head over Abercrombie’s contrapuntal comping. Throughout the album, John’s circuitous improvised lines weave tastefully around the other instruments.

Dave Liebman especially shines on a number of the songs.  On “Besame Mucho” he uses a wood flute before Abercrombie lays down a very animated solo.  Jay Anderson’s tastefully plays the head on “Lover Man” before Liebman takes over at the bridge and Anderson returns to play a great solo where Abercrombie takes over the improvising at the bridge almost as if finishing Anderson’s musical thoughts. The sax-guitar counterpoint continues in a burning version of “All of Me” and then a slightly bossa version of “All the Things You Are.” All musicians shine in the up-tempo version of Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right with Me.” The album ends with the swinging setting of “The Party’s Over” where Abercrombie demonstrates that he is comfortable in a more Freddie Green comping role. 

Timeless:  ECM 78118;  John Abercrombie: guitar; Jan Hammer: organ; Jack DeJohnette: drums  1974

This was John’s debut recording for ECM records where he, DeJohnette, and Hammer seek to move the organ trio to a new level.  DeJohnette is in fine form and Jan Hammer does some of his best playing outside of the Mahavishnu Orchestra that featured guitarist John McLaughlin. Jan Hammer’s organ work pushes Abercrombie into the fusion world.  There is plenty of spirited interplay between Jan and John.  These songs were written and recorded while John was playing in Billy Cobham’s band.  The album opens with Jan Hammer’s blistering “Lungs” before moving to the acoustic ballad of John’s entitled “Love Song.” Third is what has become John’s most performed song “Ralph’s Piano Waltz.”  I remember John telling me he wrote the tune while house setting for Ralph Towner and caring for his cat. Two more great tunes and then the albums closes with a title track composed by Abercrombie. This song begins with the long moving pedal tone that John improvises over and later evolves to some haunting chord changes in the organ that John continues to brilliantly solo over.  

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