John Abercrombie 1944–2017

The sad toll among musicians who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s continues as jazz guitarist extraordinaire John Abercrombie, 72, died on Wednesday at Hudson Valley Hospital outside of Peekskill, NY, in the presence of his family.

While everyone, or most jazz fans at least, have their favorite guitarist, their preferred stylist as it were, Abercrombie has always stood out in my mind as much for what he didn't play as for what he did. Uncommonly generous as a leader, he was a master of understatement and had impeccable taste in his playing, composing and choice of cover material. This is all the more amazing when you realize that this son of humble Scottish immigrants was influenced early in his career by rock and jazz fusion, a direction known more for loud, fast, often assaultive instrumental histrionics than strategic reserve and meticulous craftsmanship. Abercrombie was also a supremely melodic player, preferring eloquence to bombast, single legato notes over blizzards of chords.

Yet another illustrious jazz guitar alumnus of the Berklee College of Music (along with John Scofield, Pat Metheny, and Bill Frisell), Abercrombie played in bands led by Billy Cobham, Gato Barbieri, and Jack DeJohnette. He cut his first ECM recording, Timeless for Manfred Eicher's visionary label in 1974 and remained on ECM until his death, releasing his final album, Up and Coming in January 2017. While he continued throughout his life to play as a sideman particularly with DeJohnette, and could be heard on labels other than ECM (Justin Time, New Albion, Steeplechase), it's the dates as a leader on ECM that remain the most fully realized and well-recorded part of his legacy of recordings. The players he filled his ECM records with is a long and distinguished list but he and his final quartet of Marc Copland on piano, Drew Gress on double bass (far left and left in the heading photo), and Joey Baron on drums (far right) seemed to have special energy when they played together. This quartet released two albums, 39 Steps and Up and Coming.

To my ears, the list of must-have Abercrombie albums include his aforementioned ECM Debut, Night (1984), the bass-less quartet outing with Jan Hammer, Michael Brecker, and DeJohnette, and The Widow in the Window with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. I've also always had a soft spot for the two early records he made with fellow guitarist Ralph Towner, Sargasso Sea (1976) and Five Years Later (1981).

John Atkinson adds: It was a highlight of my work as a recording engineer when I recorded John Abercrombie with Marc Copland’s group in concert at a 1997 fundraiser for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. His playing scintillated with creative brilliance.

cgh's picture

Loved him with Towner. Looks like Sargasso Sea and Five Years Later, which I have on immaculate, jet black vinyl, will be going on this evening. RIP.

gefski's picture

Looks like John's death was overlooked by many in the wake of the passing of Walter Becker.

I've, of course, revisited my favorites (Timeless hit me like a brick way back then when I wasn't’t listening to jazz), but for those listening to albums where John wasn't the leader, spend an evening with Charles Lloyd's 'The Water Is Wide'; John's presence is MANDATORY!