John Abercrombie (guitarist)

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John Abercrombie
John abercrombie.jpg
Abercrombie at Bratislava Jazz Days, 2007
Background information
Birth nameJohn Laird Abercrombie
Born(1944-12-16)December 16, 1944
Port Chester, New York, U.S.
DiedAugust 22, 2017(2017-08-22) (aged 72)
Cortlandt Manor, New York
GenresJazz, jazz fusion, free jazz
Occupation(s)Musician, composer
Years active1969–2017
Associated actsDreams, Gateway, Jack DeJohnette, Ralph Towner, George Mraz, Richie Beirach, Michael Brecker, Marc Johnson, Peter Erskine, Dan Wall, Adam Nussbaum, Andy LaVerne

John Laird Abercrombie (December 16, 1944 – August 22, 2017) was an American jazz guitarist.[1][2] His work explored jazz fusion, free jazz, and avant-garde jazz. Abercrombie studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. He was known for his understated style and his work with organ trios.[3]


John Abercrombie, KJAZ radio, Alameda, California, August 11, 1981

Early life and education[edit]

John Abercrombie was born on December 16, 1944, in Port Chester, New York.[3] Growing up in the 1950s in Greenwich, Connecticut he was attracted to the rock and roll of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, and Bill Haley and the Comets. He also liked the sound of jazz guitarist Mickey Baker of the vocal duo Mickey and Silvia. He had two friends who were musicians with a large jazz collection. They played him albums by Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis.[4] The first jazz guitar album he heard was by Barney Kessel.[4][5]

He took guitar lessons at the age of ten, asking his teacher to show him what Barney Kessel was playing. After high school, he attended Berklee College of Music.[6] At Berklee, he was drawn to the music of Jim Hall, the 1962 album The Bridge by Sonny Rollins, and Wes Montgomery on his albums The Wes Montgomery Trio (1959) and Boss Guitar (1963). He cites George Benson and Pat Martino as inspirations.[4] He often played with other students at Paul's Mall, a jazz club in Boston connected to a larger club, Jazz Workshop. Appearing at Paul's Mall led to meetings with Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, and organist Johnny Hammond Smith, who invited him to go on tour.[3][5]

Dreams and Gateway[edit]

Abercrombie graduated from Berklee in 1967 and attended North Texas State University before moving to New York City in 1969.[3] He became a popular session musician,[5] recording with Gato Barbieri in 1971, Barry Miles in 1972, and Gil Evans in 1974.[6] In 1969 he joined the Brecker Brothers in the jazz-rock fusion band Dreams.[6] He continued to play fusion in Billy Cobham's band, but found that he disliked its focus on rock over jazz.[4] Nonetheless his reputation grew with the popularity of both Cobham and Dreams. The band shared billing with such the Doobie Brothers, and Abercrombie found his career taking an unwanted direction. "One night we appeared at the Spectrum in Philadelphia and I thought, 'What am I doing here?'. It just didn't compute."[5]

An invitation from drummer Jack DeJohnette led to the fulfillment of Abercrombie's desire to play in a jazz-oriented ensemble. Around the same time, record producer Manfred Eicher, founder and president of ECM Records, invited him to record an album. He recorded his first solo album, Timeless, with DeJohnette and keyboardist Jan Hammer,[4][3] who had been his roommate in the 1960s.[4] In 1975 he formed the band Gateway with DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland, recording the albums Gateway (1976) and Gateway 2 (1978).[5] Though Abercrombie would record for other labels going forward, ECM became his mainstay, and his association with that label continued for the rest of his career.

Working as a leader[edit]

The band played songs written by all three members, in a free jazz style.[4] After the Gateway albums, Abercrombie moved to playing in a more traditional style, recording for ECM three albums, Arcade (1979), Abercrombie Quartet (1979), and M (1981) with a quartet that included pianist Richie Beirach, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Peter Donald. Abercrombie said, "it was extremely important to have that was my first opportunity to really be a leader and write consistently for the same group of musicians."[5] During the mid-1970s and into the 1980s, he contributed to ensembles led by DeJohnette and participated in other sessions for ECM, occasionally doubling on electric mandolin. He toured and recorded with guitarist Ralph Towner two albums, Sargasso Sea (1976) and Five Years Later (1981). During the mid-1980s, he continued to play standards with bassist George Mraz, and he played in a bop duo with guitarist John Scofield.[3] He also appeared on a number of ECM releases in various ensembles with other artists on the label.

Between 1984-1990, Abercrombie experimented with a guitar synthesizer. His first used the instrument, though not exclusively, in 1984 in a trio with Marc Johnson on bass and Peter Erskine on drums, as well as with pianist Paul Bley in a free jazz group.[3] The synthesizer allowed him to play what he called "louder, more open music." Abercrombie's trio with Johnson and Erskine released three albums during this time showcasing the guitar-synth: Current Events (1986), Getting There (1988, with Michael Brecker), and a live album, John Abercrombie / Marc Johnson / Peter Erskine (1989).[5]

The 1990s and 2000s marked a time of many new associations. In 1992, Abercrombie, drummer Adam Nussbaum, and Hammond organist Jeff Palmer made a free-jazz album. He then started a trio with Nussbaum and organist Dan Wall and released While We're Young (1992), Speak of the Devil (1994), and Tactics (1997). He added trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, violinist Mark Feldman and saxophonist Joe Lovano to the trio to record Open Land (1999). The Gateway band reunited for the albums Homecoming (1995) and In the Moment (1996).

Abercrombie continued to tour and record, and remained associated with ECM, with whom he now had a relationship for more than 40 years. As he said in an interview, "I'd like people to perceive me as having a direct connection to the history of jazz guitar, while expanding some musical boundaries."[5]

Abercrombie died of heart failure in Cortlandt Manor, New York, at the age of 72.[7][8]


As leader or co-leader[edit]

With Gateway
With Andy LaVerne

As sideman[edit]

With Franco Ambrosetti
With Gato Barbieri
With Billy Cobham
With Marc Copland
  • Second Look (1996)
  • That's for Sure (2002)
  • ...And (2002)
  • Brand New (2004)
  • Speak to Me (2011)
With Jack DeJohnette
With Danny Gottlieb
With Dave Liebman
With Rudy Linka
  • Rudy Linka Quartet (Arta, 1991)
  • Mostly Standards (Arta, 1993)
  • Lucky Southern (Quinton, 2006)
  • Every Moment (Acoustic Music Records, 2011)
With Charles Lloyd
With Enrico Rava
With Lonnie Smith
  • Afro Blue (1993)
  • Purple Haze: Tribute to Jimi Hendrix (1995)
  • Foxy Lady: Tribute to Jimi Hendrix (1996)
With Collin Walcott
With Kenny Wheeler
With others


  1. ^ Robinson, J. Bradford; Kernfeld, Barry (2002). Barry Kernfeld (ed.). The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (2nd ed.). New York: Grove's Dictionaries. pp. 4–5. ISBN 1561592846.
  2. ^ Cook, Richard (2005). Richard Cook's Jazz Encyclopedia. London: Penguin. p. 1. ISBN 0-141-00646-3.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "CONSORT Libraries". 2010-10-06. Retrieved 2015-03-09.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Barth, Joe (2006). Voices in Jazz Guitar. Pacific, Missouri: Mel Bay. pp. 1–21. ISBN 0786676795.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h "John Abercrombie Biography". All About Jazz. Retrieved August 23, 2017.
  6. ^ a b c "CONSORT". 2010-10-06. Retrieved 2015-03-09.
  7. ^ Russonello, Giovanni (August 23, 2017). "John Abercrombie, Lyrical Jazz Guitarist, Dies at 72". The New York Times.
  8. ^ Chinen, Nate (August 23, 2017). "John Abercrombie, Wry And Exploratory Jazz Guitarist, Dies At 72". NPR Music.
  9. ^ "John Abercrombie Discography | AllMusic". Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  10. ^ "John Abercrombie ECM Records Discography". Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  11. ^ Murph, John (1 September 2003). "Stark Reality: Now is Starkers!". JazzTimes. Retrieved 1 December 2018.

External links[edit]