John Abercrombie obituary

Leading jazz guitarist whose work always retained lyricism, narrative shape and the distant heartbeat of the groove

Since hipsters appropriated the word “cool” in the 1940s, it has come to mean anything from cutting-edge musical insight to sartorial style – a catholicity that spilled over into jazz culture, so that artists of ferocious intensity and reserve could equally qualify for the description. But some of the most beguiling meanings of “cool jazz” are about power without bravura, seductive ideas left glimmering in shadows, phrasing that is insinuated rather than explicit. Miles Davis, the saxophonist Lee Konitz and the pianist Bill Evans have been luminaries of those methods, and very close to their podium stood the guitarist John Abercrombie, who has died at the age of 72.

Abercrombie was an understated, delightful performer throughout a career that took off in the 70s, and after an early period in which the rawness of rock and jazz-fusion were still evident in his sound, he moved toward the more fragile chamber-jazz dynamics that shaped his mature style.

He was one of a gifted generation of young guitarists influenced by rock, Latin, country and electronics as much as by bebop or swing. But Abercrombie, whose long-lined fluency sometimes suggested the sensibility of a pianist more than a guitarist, would avoid making the fierce chime of a blues chord as explicit as his contemporary, John Scofield, or the sway of a country song as open-handedly amiable as Pat Metheny.

John Abercrombie in concert at the Bologna jazz festival in 2014.
John Abercrombie in concert at the Bologna jazz festival in 2014. Photograph: Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images

His improvisations combined melodic unpredictability and a quietly purposeful momentum, and a typical Abercrombie set would mix unhurried, ruminative drifts into free jazz, elegaic ballads, and a characteristic brand of now-you-hear-it-now-you-don’t swing that could be as toe-tappingly infectious as versions that came much more explicitly to the point.

In his early years, Abercrombie played with many of contemporary jazz’s most influential stars, including the drummers Chico Hamilton, Jack DeJohnette and Billy Cobham, saxophonists Gato Barbieri, Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano and John Surman, and the trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler over the course of a four-decade career with the German label ECM. The self-effacing Abercrombie was fond of joking that he wanted to feel like a sideman in his own bands, and many of his ECM sessions were discreet masterpieces of ensemble improvisation and empathy. But his work never retreated into cerebral privacy, since it always retained lyricism, narrative shape and the distant heartbeat of the groove.

John was born in Port Chester, New York, the only child of John and Elizabeth Abercrombie, two emigre Scottish domestic workers. He grew up in Connecticut, and learned the guitar from the age of 14 on an acoustic given to him by his parents. He was hooked on country music and the R&B of Chuck Berry at first, but turned to jazz when he heard the sleeker lines of the bebop guitarists Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel.

In 1962, he enrolled on the famous jazz course at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and performed with the soul-jazz organist Johnny “Hammond” Smith. After postgraduate studies at North Texas State University, he moved to New York in 1969 and worked with two influential genre-bridging groups, Hamilton’s innovative band and the pioneering jazz-rock ensemble Dreams, with Brecker, his trumpeter brother, Randy, and Cobham. In 1973, Cobham formed a high-energy fusion band of his own, and their exciting debut album, Spectrum, turned out to be a resounding and unexpected commercial success. Abercrombie joined for the group’s subsequent releases (Crosswinds, Total Eclipse and Shabazz), his sound growing harder and more insistent to suit the rock-fuelled agenda, his skill and power bringing him a fast-expanding international reputation.

The John Abercrombie Quartet

But it was a session for ECM in the same year that revealed where the newcomer’s real sympathies lay. The trio recording Timeless, with fusion keyboardist Jan Hammer and drums star DeJohnette, established Abercrombie’s low-key approach to an ensemble-oriented chamber-jazz, in which his airy lines, wide cultural references and subtle contrasts of electric and acoustic sound were counterbalanced by the more muscular methods of his partners.

In 1975, Abercrombie developed the trio approach further, with DeJohnette and the bassist Dave Holland in the Gateway ensemble, a slowly evolving and popular collaboration that would reconvene sporadically for almost 20 years.

From 1978 to 1982 Abercrombie also played in a powerful quartet including the pianist Richard Beirach and bassist George Mraz, and worked with DeJohnette, Scofield and the elegant acoustic player Ralph Towner. He had a flirtation with the synthesiser in the 80s, but though he sparingly used electronics and effects pedals, he never sacrificed his clarity of line and delicacy of tone colouration to the temptations of technology.

He showed himself to be a free-jazz player of empathy and resourcefulness with the magisterial pianist Paul Bley in 1986, and worked in Wheeler’s groups, and with the bassist Marc Johnson and the drummer Peter Erskine. He lectured periodically at Purchase College, New York, and from the early 2000s released a succession of fine ECM recordings, including Class Trip (2004), the brilliant album The Third Quartet (2007) and last year’s softly rapturous Up And Coming.

Abercrombie is survived by his wife Lisa (nee Abrams), whom he married in 1986.

• John Laird Abercrombie, jazz guitarist, born 16 December 1944; died 22 August 2017

• This article was amended on 1 September 2017. John Abercrombie played on three of Billy Cobham’s album releases after Spectrum, rather than in the band Spectrum, as originally stated.


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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