John Abercrombie, Lyrical Jazz Guitarist, Dies at 72
By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO AUG. 23, 2017
John Abercrombie performing in Hartford in 1974. Fin Costello/Redferns, via Getty Images
John Abercrombie, a guitarist whose lyrical style placed him in his generation’s top tier of improvising musicians, died on Tuesday in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y. He was 72.
The cause was heart failure, his brother-in-law, Gary Lefkowitz, said.
Mr. Abercrombie became known in the mid-1970s as a prominent jazz-rock guitarist. As his style evolved and he moved away from fusion, it was his knack for understatement and his affinity for classic jazz guitar technique that defined his approach.
He played in bands led by the drummer Jack DeJohnette and the saxophonist Gato Barbieri, among others, before ECM Records released his first album as a leader, “Timeless,” in 1975.
On that album he ranged from sharp-edged electric fusion dosed with Indian classical influence to ballads of wandering irresolution and on to barreling post-bop, all the while displaying an overwhelming facility and a responsive touch on both acoustic and electric guitar.
ECM was quickly becoming one of the most respected institutions in jazz, and Mr. Abercrombie remained one of its flagship artists. He released a well-received album, “Up and Coming,” on the label in January.
“Timeless” and his other early recordings established the imperatives that would always guide him: Whether playing with sparse accompaniment or a clutch of other chordal instruments, he tended to play a melodic role, tracing bulbous shapes or sheer lines, and rarely beefed up his solos with chunks of harmony. He was an expert at finding the moments of opportunity in a band’s interplay but resisting the urge to overly exploit them.
Reviewing a duo performance with the bassist George Mraz at the Greenwich Village nightclub Bradley’s in 1986, John S. Wilson of The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Abercrombie has a light, keyboard-like manner of developing performances, sometimes spreading from a sweeping line of single notes to a fullness that suggests an organ.”
On ballads, he added, “he moves through light, almost diaphanous lines that gain in strength through their rhythmic flow and increasing melodic exposition.”
Like most guitarists of his time and ilk, Mr. Abercrombie avidly explored innovations in technology, but he refused to let his gear define his approach. He played a guitar synthesizer for a few years in the 1980s and early ’90s, but eventually abandoned it. He used a small array of effects pedals for much of his career, though even on spacey, synthesizer-driven music he prized clear articulation and harmonic forbearance.
Mr. Abercrombie in 2010 at the Birdland Jazz Club in Manhattan. Richard Termine for The New York Times
John Laird Abercrombie was born in Port Chester, N.Y., on Dec. 16, 1944, the only child of John and Elizabeth Abercrombie, domestic workers who had immigrated from Scotland. The family soon moved to adjacent Greenwich, Conn., where Mr. Abercrombie grew up.
He lived in Putnam County, N.Y., with his wife of 31 years, the former Lisa Abrams, who survives him.
As a child, Mr. Abercrombie first fell in love with the guitar listening to country and early rock ’n’ roll, then had his expectations scrambled by the jazz guitar of Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel.
“I realized that they had a different way to play than a lot of the other guys from their generation, and I liked the way they played better,” he said in a 2012 interview with the website notesontheroad.com. “Somehow it seemed more melodic, more lyrical; there was more space.”
He played in rock bands as a teenager, and in 1962 he enrolled in the Berklee School of Music (now Berklee College of Music) in Boston. After graduating he worked with the soul-jazz organist Johnny (Hammond) Smith before moving to New York City in 1970 to join the drummer Chico Hamilton’s band.
Mr. Abercrombie played with a handful of rising musicians inhabiting the divide between avant-garde improvisation, jazz tradition and hard rock. He recorded with Mr. Barbieri, Mr. DeJohnette, the trumpeter Enrico Rava and the drummer Billy Cobham, whose highly regarded band, Spectrum, conjured a dense, astral brand of fusion.
From the mid-1970s onward he recorded a stream of impressive albums for ECM, including “Gateway” (1976), with Mr. DeJohnette and the bassist Dave Holland, and “Getting There” (1988), a synthesizer-driven quartet date with guitars overdubbed on top of one another but with plenty of airspace in between.
Mr. Abercrombie frequently performed in acoustic duos and trios, never forswearing his devotion to the classic jazz repertoire. Although much in demand as a sideman, he increasingly stuck to leading his own bands. Over the last 20 years he assembled a range of quartets, often including the violinist Mark Feldman and the drummer Joey Baron, with whom he tended toward a light-footed, chamberlike approach, often moving into free improvising.
Starting in 2012, he worked with a more traditionally structured but equally distinctive quartet, featuring his longtime associate Marc Copland on piano. That group recorded two albums for ECM, “39 Steps” and “Up and Coming.”
Speaking to The Ottawa Citizen in 2014, Mr. Abercrombie said: “Even a tune you play over and over again — if you keep it fresh in your mind and you approach it with a fresh outlook, then it stays fresh. You don’t have find new and exciting types of music to play.”
He added, “That stuff just happens when your attitude is really good, when you approach things with an open mind.”