Interview with John Abercrombie
By Jim Ferguson
Guitar Player Magazine November 1986
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Curiosity has taken musical explorer John Abercrombie on an amazing journey. While most jazz musicians tend to work within the confines of a single form, he has devoted his career to investigating myriad avenues - including fusion, free jazz, bebop, and rock - along the way experimenting with uninhibited improvisations and multi-track recording techniques. Over the last decade the 42-year old Berklee College of Music graduate has helped redefine the guitar’s role in jazz, as well as demonstrate its potential for creating art.
When John was last featured in Guitar Player (Feb ‘75) he had just emerged as one of the ‘70s most promising jazz voices. Since then he has fulfilled that expectation - both as a player and as a composer - working with some of the most respected figures in modern improvisation, including keyboardist Jan Hammer, drummer Jack DeJohnette, trumpeter Lester Bowie, and saxophonist Michael Brecker. In addition, he has periodically tamed with kindred spirit Ralph Towner, writing a new chapter in the history of jazz guitar duos with their brilliant interplay, impressionistic compositions, and contrasting approaches (Abercrombie uses a pick and tends to play linearly, while Towner’s fingerstyle approach is more vertical).
In the past, Abercrombie’s sudden shifts in artistic direction have given some short-sighted critics and listeners the notion that he’s merely a chameleonic player who tends to blend into a musical environment, rather than assert his own personality.
However, his most recent album, Current Events, disproves that perception once and for all. Joining forces with two of the most solid musicians in modern jazz - drummer Peter Erskin (Formerly with Weather Report and Steps Ahead) and bassist Marc Johnson (formerly with pianist Bill Evans) - he has forged a new sound that brings together strong composition, a high level of group cohesiveness, and adventurous improvisation. On three tunes, “Clint,” “Hippityville,” and “Killing Time,” he utilizes Roland’s GR-700 synth module and Ibanez’ IMG2010 controller, creating vivid, high-tech sonic landscapes, while with “Alice in Wonderland” and “Still,” he acknowledges tradition by featuring conventional electric and acoustic instruments.
Despite Abercrombie’s pluralistic view of music, the unbreakable link that holds everything together is his improvisational strength. Intelligently unpredictable in his approaches to harmony and melody, he remains one of the most distinctive personalities in contemporary jazz guitar.
Synths can be very helpful to a composer.
They make it a lot easier to get an idea of had something sounds like. Some of the synthesizers with sampling capabilities are so sophisticated that you can almost write for an orchestra in your bedroom and hear it back five minutes later. My synthesizer equipment is not that sophisticated-which has to do with my cash flow-but things are more affordable than they were. I'd like to get some sort of a good sampling instrument that wouldn't be too expensive. Then if I felt really comfortable with a composition, I'd score it out for real instruments. Synths can help you overcome certain writing blocks. At home I've already done some things with tape recorders, a sequencer, pitch transposers, and all the different synthesizers I have. It's great because after I load something into my sequencer, I can change the synth patches and tempo and add echo on certain channels. I come up with some very interesting things, but a lot of them would be pretty hard to write down; I can't hear what it all is, because it's textural. That's a way in which synths are changing the nature of composition. Years ago composers had to be able to hear everything they wrote, but now you don't. The synthesizer is a logical step from the sound-altering devices I've used in the past-fuzztones and things like that.
How did you first get interested in synths?
It probably stemmed from Jan Hammer, because he was the first person I know who had one. He got the first Minimoog I had ever seen; hearing it played by someone that good was uncanny, When he first tried the synth, he told me that he had finally found his instrument. He's a great pianist, but he found the synthesizer to be more expressive, and it enabled him to do things he couldn't do on a piano. The next event that impressed me was hearing Pat Metheny play the original Roland GR-300 - the blue box and the brown guitar is how I describe it - at a benefit concert in Woodstock. We were standing there playing, and all of a sudden he kicks this thing in, and it just sounded wonderful. Pat and a couple other people told me that Roland was developing a programmable one with a lot more functions, so I didn't go out and get one right away. It was almost like waiting for Santa Claus to come. After trying some synths for a while and deciding that they were right for me, I went out and bought the Roland GR-700 module and the G-707 guitar. Then I locked myself in my room, programming it and working with sounds, and I fell completely in love with the thing. I'd been waiting for something like this for a long time, but now I'm waiting for them to make it more sophisticated.
Do you say that because of its limitations?
Mainly the tracking and glitching problems. When you find yourself in front of several hundred people and the thing starts acting weird, it can be strange. You become afraid, but you have to keep at it. You have to practice using it, just like any another instrument. It's also important that you learn the idiosyncrasies of the specific sounds you're working with, and you have to find the ones that feel relatively comfortable, depending on the situation. Despite the problems, synths are expressive in ways that normal guitars aren't. Whether I'm improvising or writing, it takes me to places I'd never find on a normal guitar.
So if you're careful, the problems are tolerable?
Yeah. I wouldn't use it if they weren't, because I don't want to be controlled in that way. There is a degree of risk involved though, because if you're too careful, you won't be able to play all of your music on it, so you have to beat it into submission. But no matter how much you think you have it together, you'll go to a gig and play a phrase and the thing will start squealing like a pig in a trap. When it happens onstage Peter turns to me and says, "There's that pig again."
Isn't that pretty frustrating?
Right now I'm at a frustration point, because I've taken the thing as far as I can, and now it's up to the manufacturers to get it better. I'm a musician, not a technician, and I don't know how to make it work any better than this. Recently Ibanez gave me their MIDI guitar controller, and it's a little more playable than the Roland. It's a little faster and it feels a little better as a guitar. The Ibanez and the Roland are about as good as pitch-to-voltage controllers get, although I played a Pedulla controller [for the Roland] that tracked perfectly. But it's hard to know until you have the thing in your house and take it out on gigs. That goes for any kind of equipment.
What's the ultimate solution?
A system other than pitch-to-voltage, because it's too slow. [Ed. Note: Pitch-to-voltage systems translate pitches to a series of corresponding voltages that trigger synthesized sounds; for more information, see the June 86 issue of Guitar Player.] Another problem is that many units are either unavailable to try out or they're too expensive. Even if you find something that works, option anxiety rears its ugly head and you end up not knowing what to MIDI it to. Sometimes my music seems to be lost in a sea of wires, and I'm tempted to take a battle axe from the Middle Ages and destroy all of this stuff. But I love it more than I hate it, so I stick with it.
Do you see any threat of the normal guitar losing its identity?
A little bit, but not in the long run. The electric guitar may, because guitar synths are going to be used more and more. But the acoustic guitar will always be around. Whenever I've heard them sampled by keyboardists, they've sounded very artificial - even on sophisticated instruments such as the Kurzweil. Who knows what guitarists will be playing in the future? Just in the last five years the electric guitar has changed radically. In many cases - the Steinberger and the Roland GR-707, for instance -i t doesn’t even look like a guitar anymore. What can they do next? What happens after sampling?
What's your main conventional electric?
For the past few years I've used an Ibanez Artist solid body. I have two of them, and they play well and sound good. Before that I had been using a Les Paul-an old, gold Deluxe with the small humbuckers. I still like that guitar; it's a very pretty-sounding instrument, but the Ibanez sounds fatter. I also might as well set the record straight: I tune the Fender electric mandolin listed on a lot of my albums like a guitar. I still have the original one, which looks like a shrunken bass.
How did you acquire it?
[Violinist] Jerry Goodman showed up with one at a jam session one day; he had it tuned in fifths, like a violin. He said he bought it at Manny's [music store in New York], so I ran up there, got the last one they had. There wasn't a case for it, so I had to take it out in a brown paper bag. I began playing it tuned in fifths, using it for strange music. Then I realized that I didn't want to learn a different tuning, so I put skinny strings on it and found that it could be tuned an octave higher than a regular guitar. Then I had Kevin Schwab in Minneapolis make another one for me, and that's the main one I use now. I usually use it when I play with Towner, because the synth is enough to contend with when I'm playing with a group. Schlepping all of the equipment is the part I hate more than anything. I can usually get someone to help me take it to the gig, but I have to break it down and set it up, because I can't afford a full-time person to do that. It can be a drag.
How do you transport everything?
I travel with a big synth case, which holds the Roland module and all my wires and pedals. My Ibanez controller goes in an Anvil case that has a shoulder strap. Sometimes I take my Ovation Legend acoustic, and if I don't use it on the gig, at least I can use it to practice in the hotel room. Then there's my rack, which holds a Rane six channel mixer, a Lexicon PCM-60 reverb, and a little Ibanez delay. So for someone who's supposed to be a jazz player, I'm traveling around with quite a bit of stuff.
You didn't mention an amp.
When I'm on the road I use whatever the clubs provide, although I tell them that I prefer a Roland or a Music Man. I also like Polytones - that's the jazz part of me still lingering around. I like that warmth you get from a Polytone Mini Brute; it's very sweet and fat for being so small. Usually I wind up using either a Roland JC-120 or the JC-77, which is smaller. When I play with a group, I always go stereo, but in a duo or at home I just use a Roland Cube 60. I also have a Walter Woods power amp, which is really nice. When I want to go stereo at home, I use the Walter Woods with an Electro-Voice speaker cabinet and my Cube 60. I also have a T.C. Electronic chorus.
Do you ever get a few raised eyebrows when you show up at a gig with so much equipment?
Sometimes the reaction at traditional clubs is, "What's all this shit? I thought you played normal, straight-ahead jazz. "That's what booking agents have told me. But I say, "Don't worry, Joe. Everything's going to be okay." They usually wind up liking it, especially if business is good. I still include standards in my repertoire, such as "All The Things You Are" and "Alice In Wonderland." Playing with Peter and Marc, I try to pick tunes that'll fit the mood of the music. Recently I played a week-long gig with [bassist] George Mraz, and I found that I know more standards than I thought I did. But even with all of the writing I've done, I don't think I've come up with something that's as good as "Stella By Starlight." Songs like that are great to practice because their progressions flow so well, and I feel so at home with them that I can weave in and out and really get creative. When I'm 80 years old and playing whatever weird instrument is around, I'll still do "Stella By Starlight." Standards will always be important to me, but who's to say whether people will know what they are in 20 years. A lot of kids probably have never heard of the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix, because they're more into what's happening now.
Do you ever encounter problems using a club's amp?
You never know what's going to happen; I've ended up using everything from great amps to ones as small as an ashtray. If I could find a good portable system to take on the road with me, I'd do it. I've been considering getting a rack-mountable power amp and preamp, and then renting the speakers. If I could find speakers that were small and portable enough, I'd take those, too. More stuff means having to go through nervous breakdowns at airports when you have to pay overweight charges and things like that.
How do you avoid equipment option anxiety?
It's hard. Guitar Player's synth issue [June `86] made me drool as if I were looking at Playboy for the first time, and it gave me more anxiety than I had before I read it [laughs]. I came away from that issue seething. I'd stay awake thinking about what I should get and how I could afford it. Then I wondered where I could try all of the stuff out. New York is the most difficult place in the world to try out equipment because when you walk into a store, they usually tell you that you can try something only if you are going to buy it. How much sense does that make? Some of the stores know who I am, so they're more cooperative. Thank God jazz musicians aren't that competitive.
In the past you've used overdubbing. Characters immediately comes to mind. How does that fit in with the jazz idea of spontaneity?
I have a problem with it if you overdub a lot of solos, which I've never done when I've played with jazz groups. Fusion bands were another story, because that's the way they worked. You'd lay down rhythm tracks, and then everybody would put their solos on, and you'd usually get a chance to do it a lot of times. Whereas Glen Gould would approve of overdubbing, it doesn't necessarily help you make a better jazz recording, because it's difficult to get a good feel that way. Sometimes you can, but earlier takes of a song are usually fresher. The more you play, the more things get stale. You start to repeat yourself because you're trying to make the perfect solo and you can't do it.
Do you ever make corrections by punching in?
I don't think I ever have. I accept it, but I still believe in the solo standing on its own that's what jazz is all about. If you want to make something perfect, you have to practice creating it, and that's what I do. Someday I hope to play the perfect solo, which is something you hear guys talking about. Maybe you'll never play it, and maybe you're not the one to judge whether it's perfect, but solos should be improvised. It's not that you don't want to make it perfect by overdubbing; it's just that you don't want it to be too artificial. The idea is to be creative and spontaneous. To do that, you have to live with imperfection. There might be some phrases that you don't like, but if you make changes, you might alter the overall feeling. Besides, punching into a spontaneous solo is almost impossible. If you're doing a rock and roll tune, it's easy because the form is usually clear, but when you're playing with a rhythm section and the tempo is a little more elastic, overdubbing can be very obvious. So you have to live with certain things. George Mraz and I were at a recording session listening back to a take, and he remarked in his Czechoslovakian accent, "I can live with it. One of these days I have to get a very big house, because all of this shit I have to live with is starting to take up too much room."
How do you find the time to write, play music, check out the new technology, and keep your chops up?
I don't. I also do a lot of private teaching at home, and I give clinics. The most difficult thing to do is check out new equipment, but finding time to practice is hard, too. Some weeks I don't practice much at all. If I'm playing at night, I generally don't practice during the day. I might warm up a little before the gig, but that's about it. But when I teach, I usually do a lot of playing.
How do you approach teaching?
Some teachers feel you should just talk with the student and criticize them, but I believe in having them play with me. I also believe in recording the lessons on cassette, so nothing goes unnoticed. I don't write out tons of licks. Instead I give a student a musical idea and have them come up with a bunch of variations for the next time we get together. We also play a lot of tunes. One of the benefits of teaching is that I've become very comfortable playing solo. I might take a standard, twist it around, and even play a few choruses in time like Joe Pass, only in my own way. A couple of years ago I wouldn't have done that; I used to tell people, "I don't do windows, and I don't play solo."
When you do have the time, what do you practice?
I used to sit down and bang out scales, but I don't do that much anymore. My technique is usually an outgrowth of working on something else. One thing I do is take a small fragment-maybe an eighth-note line-and play it into the ground until it really feels fluid. Next, I try to look at it from different harmonic perspectives, and then I try to include it in my playing. Using it is the hard part, but if you become familiar enough with something, it'll eventually creep into your improvisations. Sometimes I mentally visualize something on the fingerboard, and then I put it on the guitar later.
What is the most fundamental way your playing has changed over the last decade?
It's become more personal and more confident. I wouldn't say it's become more conservative by any means, but it's clearer and it's not as wild as it was. And it's more connected. Now I intuitively know what I want to get across when I pick up the guitar, whereas before I often just went through the motions. My hands were moving and things were coming out, but I wasn't really hearing them. Playing what you hear is the greatest challenge.
Copyright © 1986 Guitar Player Magazine