Remembering the Timeless Sound of John Abercrombie (1944–2017)

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I was saddened to learn that guitarist John Abercrombie passed away last week at the age of 72.

I bought his first album, Timeless, right after it was released in 1975. I loved his playing with keyboardist Jan Hammer—then part of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, and who later became the composer for the series Miami Vice—and Jack Dejohnette, who would later become the drummer for Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio. At the time, John was still a member of drummer Billy Cobham’s group, Spectrum.

I’ve been a big fan of John’s ever since and have collected all of his albums, most of which are on the German label, ECM Records. Just a few months ago, ECM issued his very last album, Up and Coming, which I have been listening to nonstop. Every track on this swan song record is gorgeous. I can’t recommend it enough.

John started out as more of a jazz fusion player, incorporating rock elements and various electronics to intensify his sound. After leaving the Cobham band, he refined his sound, played fewer notes, and moved away from electronic gear. I loved Sargasso Sea, his 1976 duet album with Ralph Towner, and Current Events from 1986, among his other ECM albums. The 1979 album, Arcade, ranks as a favorite among many of his fans.

I interviewed John for KCRW back in 1980, and we digitized that old tape to share the audio again today. We talked about his formative musical experiences: his early love of the rock and roll of Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers; Barney Kessel; and most notably the sparse, thoughtful playing of Jim Hall. He mentioned that he was also fond of Django Reinhardt, whose music I had been playing when he arrived in studio. The vinyl LPs we featured were noisy, and somehow there was a big skip when we aired the song “Arcade,” which was the title track of his 1979 album. You can also hear the school bell ring and kids playing outside.

Left to right: Drew Gress, Marc Copland, John Abercrombie, Joey Baron. (Photo by Bart Babinski/ECM Records) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

As much as he loved recording for ECM, with the label’s iconic production values and cathedral sound, John also loved the spontaneity of performing before an audience. He said he could feel them responding to his music, especially when he played small clubs in Europe and Japan. John also enjoyed performing West Coast gigs; the famous The Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach was one of his favorite spots. I was lucky enough to catch John perform live at The Lighthouse Café following our interview. His quartet that night was stellar: Richie Beirach on piano; George Mraz, bass; and Peter Donald on drums.

John Abercrombie was a guitarist’s guitarist, not a flashy one who went for speed and fast, hot runs. He never tried playing modal to catch fire like flamenco-style players. Instead, he was a thoughtful, introspective player who carefully considered each note. He played and practiced constantly, always trying to improve his sound. He chose to work with musicians who—like him—required plenty of space for improvising. John’s flame burned low and blue, but it was just as hot, maybe even hotter. His was a musical language all his own.

Rest in peace, John Abercrombie (December 16, 1944–August, 22, 2017). Thank you always for your music.