Jazz Guitar Giant John Abercrombie in-Studio With a career that spans over four decades and 50 recordings, John Abercrombie is an established master of the jazz guitar. He says his new CD, The Third Quartet has the sound of 20th century classical music.
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Jazz Guitar Giant John Abercrombie in-Studio

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Jazz Guitar Giant John Abercrombie in-Studio

Jazz Guitar Giant John Abercrombie in-Studio

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From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Over three decades ago, ECM Records producer Sir Manfred Eicher asked a young guitarist if he'd like release a debut album. The guitarist said he wasn't ready, but Eicher persisted. Although the budding player said he felt like he was hanging on for dear life, he made the record.

(Soundbite of song, "Ralph's Piano Waltz")

HANSEN: The guitarist was John Abercrombie and the 1974 album "Timeless" is now regarded as a masterpiece. Abercrombie is now established as one of the giants of jazz guitar, playing on nearly 50 ECM recordings. In 2000, he established a quartet with violinist Mark Feldman, bass player Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron. They released two discs, "Cat 'n' Mouse" and "Class Trip." The new one is called "The Third Quartet."

(Soundbite of song, "Ralph's Piano Waltz")

HANSEN: John Abercrombie joins us in Studio 4A. Welcome to the program. It's so nice to meet you.

Mr. JOHN ABERCROMBIE (Jazz Guitarist): Oh, it's nice to meet you. Nice to be here.

HANSEN: There's a lot of improvisation on this CD, as there is in many of the recordings that you make and certainly your performances. And you also said that it sounds more like chamber music than free jazz. What do you mean by that?

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: Well, I think it's, kind of, literal in a way because I think it has a lot to do in the instrumentation. I mean, it does have a lot to do, not only with how we play, but with the fact that it's a string band. You're hearing an acoustic bass, a completely acoustic violin, of course, acoustic drums, I mean, you know. But I'm the only electric guy in the band, really.

And so, I think it's the nature of the instrumentation, which when we improvise freely, that is without a structure, we - it tends to sound a little more, a little bit more like 20th century classical music or something. And a lot of that has to do with the influence of Marc Felman, of course, because he's one of the - he's such a main voice and he's so classically trained. And he improvises almost in a more classical manner as opposed to a jazz manner.

(Soundbite of song, "Tres")

HANSEN: You've played with a lot of drummers, I mean, drummers - big names Chico Hamilton...


HANSEN: ...and Jack DeJohnette, and now Joey Baron. What do you look for when you're looking for a drummer to compliment you, you're sound, the sound that you want to make? What are you listening for?

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: Yeah. What I'm listening for - because people usually ask me what are you looking for in a drummer, and I just say it's a guy with a car.

(Soundbite of laughter)


HANSEN: Usually it's the guy with the house where you can go and practice.

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: Yes. Something, you know. All the drummers I've worked with as a leader or a side band are all fantastic. I think what I look for is a guy that leaves a lot of space, just like I would for in a bass player. And Joey for me is perfect because he leaves certain kinds of spaces that allow me to breadth and play the way I like to play. Yet, he can swing like mad. He can play if we want to play in that style, he can go there. Actually, I look for guys that make me sound good too.

(Soundbite of song, "Wishing Bell")

HANSEN: You have a great bass player, Marc Johnson...

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: Oh, yeah. The best.

HANSEN: ...with whom rounds out the quartet sounds. What does he give? What has he contribute?

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: A very similar thing to Joey, but also with Marc - its tone. I mean, he has some of the most beautiful sounds on the instrument, you know, acoustically. And even when he plays through an amplifier. He's very sensitive to sound and his sound compliments mine really nicely because it's really warm and dark.

HANSEN: Yeah. We wanted to play a little name that tune.


HANSEN: Okay. This is number one.

(Soundbite of song, "Love is Strange")

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: I know this one.

(Soundbite of song, "Love is Strange")

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: Mickey & Sylvia, "Love is Strange."

MICKEY & SYLVIA (R&B Duo): (Singing) Love, love is strange.

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: My favorite.

HANSEN: Now tell us why. What did you hear in that that intrigued you when you first heard it?

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: Well, I think it was just the way the tunes, the way the things are opened with this, sort of, guitar orchestrated little sound. I mean, it was the sound of electric guitar that grabbed my ear first. And this was one of the things that I heard when I was growing up and going to, well, eating my lunch as a kid and go on putting a nickel in the juke box and hearing Mickey & Sylvia sing "Love is Strange," and Chuck Berry sing, you know, "School Days."

It was the attraction of the electric guitar and not so much of their voices or anything, I think. It was more just the sound of the electric guitar, you know. It was just like obviously, the coolest thing I've ever heard.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: My first guitar was a steel-string acoustic guitar that my parents bought, and I almost gave up playing the guitar because the thing was so damn hard to play. I mean, it was just, the strings were - and there was like telephone cables, you know. And they were up off the fret board very high. And it was just so painful for a young kid to play an instrument like this, you know, that I wound up taking it out in the yard and using it as a baseball bat at one point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: You know. And then after hearing things like "Love is Strange" and Chuck Berry, I heard my neighbor. I can't remember his name now, but he was - I just heard this sound of an electric guitar kind of drifting over to my porch where I was sitting. So I walked over, and there was this guy with his feet up on the porch railing, you know, playing an electric guitar. Just strumming chords.

And I was so fascinated with is that that's when I started talking to my parents and said, I really want an electric guitar, you know. So I got little student model electric guitar with an amp. And that was - then, I was happy, you know. Then I knew that this was the least something I could deal with. It didn't hurt my fingers as much. And I just love the sound of the electric guitar.

HANSEN: Yeah. Here's another tune.

(Soundbite of song, "Round Trip")

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: Ah, this is the original recording.

(Soundbite of song, "Round Trip")

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: And it sounds great.

(Soundbite of song, "Round Trip")

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: Yeah, "Round Trip." Ornette Coleman. Share on, Cherie(ph).


Mr. ABERCROMBIE: And this is - I haven't heard this recording in a while. Actually, when I chose this tune to play on the current CD, I didn't listened to this recording. I mean, I wasn't - as a matter of fact, I didn't even want to play this tune. I was looking for another tune. I was looking for a tune they'd recorded. It might be from the same CD, the same record. The tune was called "Rambling."

And when I looked on the - through a music book on a the computer, I found "Rambling." And at the bottom, on the same page, when I printed it out, was this tune, "Round Trip." I mean, it was just a fluke, you know. I didn't remember the tune.

And then when the music came out of the printer, I looked through "Rambling," and thought this is a great tune. I mean, this could work with the band. And then I saw "Round Trip," and I said, well, it looks simple, so I just played the melody.

I said, oh, this is - I like this better, you know. This was more what I really want to do because it has a certain kind of pulse to it, a jazz pulse. I mean, there's not much to it. It is just this simple, almost childlike melody, but it's great to improvise from.

(Soundbite of song, "Round Trip")

HANSEN: Here's the third one.


(Soundbite of song, "Epilogue")


HANSEN: How long has it been since you've heard that?


HANSEN: Bill Evans' "Epilogue."


HANSEN: You covered this one?

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: Yeah. He plays it. Well, he wrote it, but he plays it faster. We play it more slow and we divide the melody he's written, and there's just this little melody in force. And we just - Mark Feldman and I - divided the melody. I played the top. He plays the bottom. And it works perfectly for guitar and violin. So it's like a real vignette. I mean, it doesn't, it's not something you stretch out on, and, you know, you know, go crazy on. It really is - it's just this beautiful little piece. I've always loved this thing. But I love Bill Evans. I love just about everything Bill did.

(Soundbite of song, "Epilogue")

HANSEN: There's something about - I think I read about you liked his waltz' time that he would do at a three-quarter time.

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: Yeah. He was famous for writing waltzes and playing a lot of waltzes. And that really influenced me because I write a lot. And as a matter of fact, I think it was the album before this, the CD before this called "Class Trip," it's almost, I think - everything is in a triple meter almost.

HANSEN: Yeah. There's a piece on the CD called "Tres."

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: "Tres," yeah.

HANSEN: Yeah. A lot of shifting rhythms that's kind of your specialty.

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: Yeah. That's basically a waltz. I mean it's a - it just has a Spanish sound to me. I've never written anything that had Spanish flavor to it. I don't know why. But this one, when I wrote it and I played it with a friend, as we played, he said, this really sounds kind of Spanish.

(Soundbite of song, "Tres")

HANSEN: Your nickname Thumbelina?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: No, it's just, that's a name that came from another great German I worked with named Adam Nussbaum. And we had a trio, which is still an ongoing trio with (unintelligible) on drums. So sometimes, when I'd be on a gig and I would play something really kind of fast, that I'm doing it with my thumb. And Adam, I would just look over at Adam, and he would just kind of make it, make this expression like, you know, he would take his thumb and he would blow on it like the thumb was burning, you know.

Oh, man, you're - and then, sort of, he would come off the set and he'd go, man, Thumbelina, man. You were doing it again, you know. So that's where that comes from. But that was really only his, as far as I know - he's the only one that uses that name. I certainly hope that's not common knowledge and there are people walking around, saying, oh, did you hear Thumbelina's new record today, you know, well. Did you get Thumbelina play - no, it's not quite a well-known name. I'm surprised you know. I didn't know anybody knew about that.

HANSEN: Yeah. Well, why did you go from the pick to the thumb?

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: Mostly for sound. I mean, it's - I started playing with my thumb instead of using a pick about maybe 10 years ago, I just felt so much better. I mean, it felt, it not only sounded better to me. It sounded much warmer. It just felt better because all of a sudden, the flesh of my hand was right on the string. I didn't have this piece of plastic that kind of interfered, you know.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Describe the guitar you have with you today. It is a beautiful piece of work, I have to say.

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: It really is. You know, this is, this guitar was made for me by a company in Poughkeepsie, New York called Brian Moore Custom Guitars. The custom really is, it wasn't custom-made for me. That's just the name of their company. And this was made for me because I, about three years ago, I had a fire in my house and I lost pretty much everything, you know, in terms of instruments, clothes, CD's, music. I mean, it was a traumatic, horrifying experience.

And right after that happened, it made the local Putnam Valley paper, of course, you know - jazz musician's house burns down. Pictures of burned guitars in the yard, you know. It was just like, I guess people really need news, you know. Really, seriously, I mean, it was a small town, I mean, you know. So this was probably big news. This was next to, you know, snow plowing. This was probably going to win that.

So anyway, it caught the man who runs the company. A fellow, Patrick Cummings, called me, called me. Oh man, I saw what happened. Do you have any guitars left? I said, well, not really. I said, you know, one of your guitars is pretty badly charred. Maybe I'll bring it to you. And he said, well, don't worry. He said, we'll get you an instrument.

So he gave me an instrument the next day, and then he made this one for me. It took - a few months and they put this one together for me. And it's a - it's just a great little instrument. It's very versatile. It - if you can see it, it has sort of holes on it like most guitars have F holes.


Mr. ABERCROMBIE: The company refers to these as E holes, because they're more in the shape f an E. But it also - the nice thing about this guitar is it's very light, it's fully loaded this guitar, you know.

HANSEN: Well, we're going to hear you play it and then take us out with some music. I believe you're going to play number four, it's called "Number 26." This is not on the album.

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: Yeah, you know, "Number 26" is in there. This is - It is on the album, but it is not on the album. But it is called that in French. It's called "Vingt Six."

HANSEN: Well, before we hear "Vingt Six..."

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: "Vingt Six."

HANSEN: ...as it were, I want to thank you, John Abercrombie, for coming into the studio and remind people that your new CD, "The Third Quartet," is on the ECM label. It was a pleasure to meet you and have talked to you.

Mr. ABERCROMBIE: My pleasure. Thanks very much.

(Soundbite of song, "Vingt Six")

HANSEN: You can hear the full studio 4A performance of John Abercrombie's "Vingt Six," as well as more conversation, on our Web site, npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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