The Loss Of Another Great Hero - John Abercrombie
We are finally posting here about the loss of jazz legend John Abercrombie. He was a significant influence and contributor to our band's overall sound and approach, so we definitely found it appropriate to post something. Dean has taken time to write a heartfelt, insightful and even vulnerable personal letter about John. We have posted it here for your reference, below.
-First, a proposition of sorts...
Perhaps you’ve noticed that a couple of years ago I started writing a lot about musicians just after they pass away. Unfortunately, this is not completely by choice. Ever since a couple of years ago I’ve simply been trying to honor my fallen heroes. I’m actually heavily influenced by many artists and musicians, and from specific generations, generations that are beginning to pass on now.
Where most artists and musicians have one or two main influences that changed their lives or their musical direction, I have a few dozen. You may ask "How and why so many?" And well, it's my personal opinion that most artists and musicians are not influenced by quite enough people actually, not at all.
The world is obviously a vast and beautiful place, yet we treat it like it only serves one or two purposes at a time for each of us. As a result of this, to such aspects as music for instance, we have a world full of artists and musicians who only specialize in one thing, and that, to me, doesn't speak to the human spirit very well. The human mind is capable of fathoming a multitude of concepts, and the human heart is capable of a magnificent spectrum of feelings. Learning and mastering only one genre or medium at a time, specifically led by only one or two artist/pioneers, should not be enough for any fan in my opinion, be they artists or other. There is a very practical and constructive reason for diversifying one’s tastes, and I feel strong enough about this to begin arguing that point a lot. Of course this is just my own opinion, but I do feel like I can at least back it up.
I've been asked, many times, how I'm able to be such a diverse musician with such diverse abilities, sometimes even within the confines of a single album. The answer and solution to this quandary is not that I’m just “naturally gifted.” Nope. It’s actually that I allowed myself, all these years, to take vast amount of artists seriously, not just a few. I bothered to remember almost every great musician I heard; I always attempted to understand new genres that were considered challenging to understand; I allowed myself to study artists or specific works of there's; I allowed myself to see the true greatness in their abilities, even if they were sometimes imitators of other great artists. I didn't just have one guy that I worshiped, and then the rest was either decor or “bad music” in my eyes, the way most people tend to think. No, I allowed myself to be influenced by absolutely anyone who innovated within my medium. I was very giving with my attention and my praise, because lesser known artists needed that praise, and because they were good enough to deserve it. The famous ones already had enough credit. They had no shortage of accolades, often to the point of being overrated, and I believe I was wise enough to understand this. I gave of my attention plentifully, so I know I'm a far better musician for it today, and my ability should speak to this even louder than my words.
But while we are on that subject, in addition to the differences between our systems of palette, I do seem to share one unfavorable thing in common with most listeners. It appears that even though our tastes and discoveries and collections continue on through our lifetime as we go forward, spanning entire decades of artists, they unfortunately don't usually go much further backward than the year we were born. I'm not sure what that's about, but it seems to be the case for most of us. I was never interested in electronic music or rock or even jazz before the 70s, the decade of my childhood. I’m still not. And most people seem to share this limitation with me.
In regards to jazz, from the 70s on, my interest was only a specific type of jazz that was made by musicians who weren't afraid to incorporate new technology into their craft. I was only interested in those I considered the jazz pioneers, from the 70s forward, and I still am. I know this disregards a lot of significance in the jazz world before I was born, including it’s very birth, but this habit still seems to be common with many of us. Perhaps sometimes we can be extremely giving with our tastes, but they still only extend to what we consider the pulse of our time. Perhaps it’s a control issue, feeling that we don't have much control over times before us, or that times before we existed somehow make us feel insignificant on a subconscious level. I don't know. But yes, there seems to be a pattern most of us tend to follow, being fans of artists who are alive during our own lifetimes. So then in my case, I've been very giving and heavily influenced by an unparalleled multitude of artists, who were all pretty much alive while I was.
I allowed myself to be heavily influenced in general by music that went as far back as roughly 1970. For jazz and electronic music, it was usually instrumental music for me, because vocals added a considerable distraction, while instrumental music truly exhibited the sonic and compositional breakthroughs without anything there to muddy the waters. For jazz, my interests went as far back as roughly 1973, right around the time when two very important new-generation albums came out: Odyssey by Terje Rypdal, and Timeless by John Abercrombie--Timeless probably being the more important of the two. Both albums were released in 1975.
I think I was even on acid when I first heard these albums, in the late 80s. After discovering them, it was pioneering jazz guitarist John Abercrombie who was the one I tended to follow and be influenced by most. Without a doubt, it was one of my most rewarding journeys as a listener.
About John Abercrombie...
Some of you probably know this already, but a few days ago, John Abercrombie died of heart failure. This has saddened many of us, and is yet again the chief inspiration for one of my long winded articles (of sorts). The musicians of the earliest generation of my collection and my tastes, have begun to pass on, in droves. Because of this, it's often hard for me to find friends to confide in or commiserate with about these losses. Most people understand the loss of one artist, but they don't understand the loss of the other, and I have many others. Again, I only wish more listeners in the world diversified their tastes, and not just their taste for diverse pop genres.
Someone who was just barely a bigger influence for me than John Abercrombie was Allan Holdsworth, who passed away a few months ago, so this is definitely getting weird for fans and artists like myself. These were heroes I had made a decision to work with if I had ever achieved great enough success for it, and many of those heartfelt plans seem to now be falling by the wayside, simply because these peeps are all dying. In addition, I often wonder if any of these people ever even had a chance to acknowledge my own music, or if they even knew that I existed. That's probably what makes this the hardest for me. Indeed I’ve worked with many great and sometimes famous musicians, often after having idolized them for a lifetime, but there are still plenty more I’ve dreamt of working with.
John Abercrombie was one of those people. I had promised myself I would work with him, even a little, or to even just know personally a little. At one point, I had actually decided that I wanted to be in John's presence during the turn of the millennium. For some reason he had that much significance in my eyes, that I wanted to actually mark that moment in history by being in his company. I vaguely remember wanting to listen to his song entitled "Chance", in his presence, during the turn of the millennium. Of course I never got that chance.
But I will now start attempting to wind up this “article” by finally trying hard to articulate and sum up what John Abercrombie's work fully meant to artists like me, and what I thought he brought to the world.
To start my description, I'm going to use comparisons to try and add perspective.
Abercrombie was often grouped in with two other famous guitar players of his time, who all attended the Berklee school of music in Boston, like he did. These players were John Schofield and Pat Matheny. Abercrombie was perhaps the least skilled musician out of these men, but the mood, vision and soul that his playing exuded spoke volumes in every note. Abercrombie, Schofield and Matheny all had similar styles as a result of their Berkeley grounding, and probably Abercrombie to Matheny the most. In many people’s eyes, John Abercrombie was considered the darker and more minimalist Matheny, even though John had started earlier. I can agree that the "darker Matheny" branding is kind of accurate, but is still only skimming the very thin surface of what Abercrombie brought. I suppose I've tended to prefer Abercrombie over Matheny, and over Schofield, because Abercrombie's repertoire was clearly and obviously an exploration of mentalities in addition to given genres. Abercrombie's thing wasn’t merely just "his thing." Unlike with the other two, it was obvious to me how much John enjoyed, and prided himself in, trying out new styles and approaches, whether they were "his thing" or not. This occasional phenomenon in artists has always garnered my personal respect and attention the most, when people are secure in themselves enough to step outside their solid identities and caricatures enough to try new things.
Not to make it sound like Schofield or Matheny did not have their own very intense and pioneering explorations, because they truly did, and sometimes even going much deeper than Abercrombie could ever even dream of going. They were, after all, more skilled. But, to me, that still didn’t change the fact that Abercrombie's spirit seemed naturally fixated on exploration at all times. It wasn't an occasional jaunt to him, the way it seemed to be for the others.
John’s main quality or theme...
Perhaps this is just pure presumption on my part, and perhaps Abercrombie would disagree with my limited opinion as a listener, but if I had to some up his overall quality and vision in one word, I think that word would be--distance. I think what I probably got most from John Abercrombie as a player and composer, was a sweet distance that I hadn’t known before him. Like many great jazz musicians, John Abercrombie had a longing and sentiment in is playing and his arrangements. But the reason Abercrombie’s specific longing and sentiment could never be satiated was because of a pure and obvious distance that was unmistakably heard when listening to him. It was there, keeping everything apart, in a beautiful dance between reaching and retracting. However, I don't just mean his distance as a metaphor, I also mean it as a literal sonic position in the audio. This was one of the things that made Abercrombie so pioneering.
Most people may not realize it, but John Abercrombie was one of the first jazz musicians to use heavy effects and specifically heavy reverb on his instrument, in this case being guitar and electric mandolin. This use of heavy reverb simulated a feeling of literal distance, not just metaphorically, because every time John played, even as a lead guitar player, the reverb made him sound like he was still far away somehow, or somehow still in the background. This new dichotomy in live ensemble music was revolutionary, for the few players who were practicing it. And this new use of heavy reverb and effects was not just a passing phase for Abercrombie. Indeed he kept practicing these techniques, in a variety of ways throughout his works, and he also kept incorporating new technologies into it as they would develop.
Eventually when synth guitar was invented, Abercrombie caught onto that as well. He might have done it a little later than Matheny did, but he was still just as pioneering.
What people often don't realize, is that what makes people pioneers is not only whether or not they were the first, but whether or not they were the few. When something becomes a craze, it's hard to brand any one person a pioneer, because everyone is doing that same thing. But when only a few people continue to explore an area, where most others don't, that makes those few people pioneers. If you look up the word pioneer in the dictionary, that’s pretty much what it describes. It's not the first person to have done anything, it's the first people to have done something. It's a person who is among the first to explore something, not the only one.
For this reason, I consider Abercrombie as much of a guitar synth pioneer as Matheny or Holdsworth or Frisell was, or more, because Abercrombie went even deeper into those new tools at one time.
In addition to Abercrombie's technological evolution, and his evolution as a player, was his compositional evolution. Distance was still a stylistic motif for him both as a metaphor and a sonic effect in his pieces and productions. The combination of these two suggestions, sonic distance coupled with metaphoric distance, was felt in almost everything he did, and this was a very powerful thing for music fans like myself.
Abercrombie’s distance left a permanent impression on me, numerous times. It was a new type of emotion, one that didn't fall on the happy/sad/mad spectrum. But it wasn't removed emotion either. It was simply intense distance, not too tragic, not too flighty, and not too indifferent, but somewhere in the middle and off to the side. That is the only way I can describe the often-strange new emotion John Abercrombie brought.
Abercrombie debuted this feeling with his album Timeless, but from there it took on new dimensions and new land masses in the overall map of his work, with albums like Arcade and Getting There.
John created a very strong discography over the course of his development, but I do have my own favorites and preferences, and what are to me the best symbol of the qualities and evolutions I speak of. To end this description of Abercrombie, I'm going to simply list those works below. They are what I would consider his most exploratory and yet emotionally potent works. Should you ever choose to track down any of the listed songs and albums, feel free to reference this article again, and perhaps you will make that connection yourself and fully understand what this musician meant.
Below are my strongest John Abercrombie picks, in order of priority. In most cases the entire album is great. I simply have songs that I slightly prefer amidst the great overall material is all.
Album: Getting There
Favorite songs: "Chance", "Getting There" and "Thalia"
Favorite songs: "Timeless" and "Love Song"
Favorite songs: "Neptune" and "Arcade"
Album: Abercrombie Quartet
Favorite songs: "Madagascar" and "Riddles"
Favorite songs: "Parable"
Album: Animato (whole album)
Favorite songs: "Boat Song", "Pebbles" and "Flashback"
Some additional John Abercrombie albums secondary to the ones listed above, this time in no particular order, would be:
Album: Sargasso Sea
Album: Gateway 2
Album: Five years later
Album: Current Events
Unfortunately, the audio for a lot of this material is currently not posted anywhere online. You may have to actually purchase some albums to be able to hear them. There is also the subject of John Abercrombie’s repertoire as a musician, which I haven’t mentioned; he played on countless albums by other artists, and this involves some of his best playing. I have my favorites, but they are a small island in a sea of work that I have not even heard most of yet. So I feel wrong giving my preferences on that just now. Hopefully, if any of what I've said has intrigued you or peaked your curiosity, you can do that research yourself and find the rewards of it.
For the sake of posterity, I'm going to include a link to one of his priority tracks, and his most known one, “Timeless.”
"Timeless" is a very quiet and long piece, but undeniably sentimental in a very modern sense. When you hear it, and consider the year it was made (75), there's no doubt about why it was such a hit. Apparently this album and title track was so popular and such a breakthrough that it is cited as having put the legendary ECM music label on the map. I don’t know if that’s entirely true or not, but I’ve heard it said by more than one person. On the album, Abercrombie collaborated with two other huge influences in my life: drummer Jack Dejohnette, and keyboardist Jan Hammer, who single-handedly reinvented keyboard playing. The entire album is astounding, but the song Timeless speaks for itself.
I even performed a cover of Timeless with guitarist Nels Cline at one of our Cyberstock music festivals in the early 90s. The concert was held deep in Temescal Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains, and it was as timeless an experience as the title suggests. I wish Abercrombie had been there. I will eventually dig that footage up and post it on YouTube somewhere.
In addition to Abercrombie's work with icons Dejohnette and Hammer, was his work with other significant icons such as composer Vince Mendoza, pianist Richie Beirach, and unparalleled rhythm section Peter Erskine and Mark Johnson.
I wish I could also include links to my other favorite works of John’s, songs like "Chance", "Neptune" and "Madagascar", pieces that easily rival Timeless in their emotional depth. But unfortunately they don't seem to be posted anywhere online. I guess a lot of this work isn’t quite as understood by people yet as I feel it should be. I do highly suggest doing that research on John if you are a pioneering music aficionado. It’s a rewarding endeavor, based on my own experience.
Lastly, considering that Abercrombie always embodied the ECM records aesthetic, I think there is a lot of visual symbolism and connotations of northern lands (or far southern hemispheric lands) in his music. I found that traveling through forested areas, coastal areas and alpine regions were the most rewarding while listening to John's work. This is something I thought might be worth mentioning as much as anything else, because of my own epic experiences with it.
Rest in peace, John Abercrombie. I will continue to travel with your music and discover new horizons in it’s resonance. Perhaps upon listening I will always attempt to reach the part of your soul that you yourself may never have reached. This attempt is my testament to you and your timelessness, dear sir. Drift onward.