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Abercrombie, John (jazz) (Laird)locked

  • J. Bradford Robinson
  • , revised by Barry Kernfeld

(bPort Chester, NY, Dec 16, 1944). Americanguitarist and leader. He was brought up in Connecticut and took up guitar at the age of 14. From 1962 to 1966 he attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, during which time he performed with Johnny Hammond, playing locally at the Big M club and touring. He later studied at North Texas State University. After moving to New York in 1969 he played mainly in Chico Hamilton’s group, but also briefly joined the jazz-rock group Dreams (which included Billy Cobham and the Brecker brothers) and worked with Jeremy Steig, Gil Evans, and Gato Barbieri. In 1974 he became a member of Cobham’s jazz-rock group Spectrum, where he attracted widespread attention. From this same year, when his highly regarded trio recording Timeless was recorded, he began to prefer a subdued, “chamber” jazz style of performance, either working with his own small groups, including the trio Gateway with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette (1975–7) and a notable quartet with Richard Beirach, George Mraz, and Peter Donald (1978–c1982), or as a much sought-after sideman. He made important contributions to ensembles led by DeJohnette, took part in numerous recording sessions, mostly for the ECM label, and toured with Ralph Towner (mid-1970s into the 1980s).

Having occasionally doubled on the electric mandolin, Abercrombie during the mid-1980s used his principal instrument, the electric guitar, to play standards in duos and trios with Mraz and in a bop duo with John Scofield. However, he also explored the possibilities offered by the guitar synthesizer while recording in a duo with Beirach, leading a trio with Marc Johnson and Peter Erskine (from 1984), and working in Paul Bley’s free-jazz group (1986); later, around 1990, he abandoned the synthesizer. In 1992, after participating in a free-jazz recording with Adam Nussbaum and the Hammond organist Jeff Palmer, Abercrombie founded a trio with Nussbaum and another Hammond organist, Dan Wall. This became his principal working group, but during this period he also joined Kenny Wheeler’s ensembles, revived the Gateway trio, and maintained his longstanding association with Johnson and Erskine; each of his three trios toured Europe and recorded in the 1990s, although John Surman joined a recording session by the last-named ensemble in 1992. Abercrombie also formed duos with Andy LaVerne (from the mid-1980s into the 1990s) and Marc Copland (1990s). In 1994, with Joe LaBarbera, he joined Hein Van de Geyn’s trio Baseline; this became a quartet in 1998 with the addition of the dancer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.

Abercrombie’s spare, understated personal style combines elements ranging from bop to free jazz. At its most restrained his approach threatens to evaporate into the background, but instead Abercrombie usually succeeds in generating, in his own relaxed manner, music which is intensely creative; his work with organ trios indicates most clearly how this conception ties into dynamic, swinging, and overtly emotional aspects of the jazz tradition. He makes imaginative use of distorting devices such as the phase shifter and volume pedal, and a sensitive control of tone-color is apparent throughout his recorded legacy. A book of transcriptions has been published by J. Workman and C. Jentsch: Jazz Guitar Solos (Rottenburg, Germany, 1993).

Selected recordings

(recorded for ECM unless otherwise indicated)

Duos with R. Towner

Sargasso Sea (1976, 1080)

Five Years Later (1981, 1207)

As leader

Timeless (1974, 1047)

Characters (1977, 1117)

Straight Flight (1979, Jam 5001)

M (1980, 1191)

Night (1984, 1272)

Current Events (1985, 1311)

Getting There (1987, 1321)

Animato (1989, 1411)

While We’re Young (1992, 1489)

November (1992, 1502)

Speak of the Devil (1993, 1511)

As leader of Gateway [with J. DeJohnette and D. Holland]

Gateway (1975, 1061)

Gateway 2 (1977, 1105)

Homecoming (1994, 1562)

In the Moment (1996, 1574)

As sideman

Johnny Hammond: Nasty (1968, Prst. 7588)

B. Cobham: Crosswinds (1974, Atl. 7300)

J. DeJohnette: Sorcery (1974, Prst. 10081)

Untitled (1976, 1074)

New Directions (1978, 1128)

K. Wheeler: The Widow in the Window (1990, 1417)

J. Lovano: Landmarks (1990, BN 96108-2)

J. Palmer: Ease on (1992, Audioquest 1014)

Selected films and videos

Andy LaVerne and John Abercrombie in Concert (n.d.)

Jazzvisions: All Strings Attached (1988)

John Abercrombie–Michael Brecker Quartet: Live at the Village Vanguard, iii (c1989 [filmed 1986])

Peter Erskine: Everything is Timekeeping (c1989)

Timekeeping 2: Afro-Caribbean, Brazilian, and Funk (1990)


  • C. Berg: “John Abercrombie’s Six-string Stylistic Summit,” DB, 43/4 (1976), 16
  • T. Schneckloth: “John Abercrombie: a Direction of his Own,” DB, 46/4 (1979), 16 [incl. discography]
  • J. Ferguson: “John Abercrombie: Testing the Thresholds of Jazz,” GP, 20/11 (1986), 58 [incl. discography]
  • B. Milkowski: “John Abercrombie: Seduced by Synths,” DB, 53/9 (1986), 17 [incl. discography]
  • B. Riedinger: “John Abercrombie: Guitar with No Bounds,” JT (1988), Feb, 5
  • J. Maley: “John Abercrombie,” Cadence, 17/11 (1991), 11
  • K. Franckling: “John Abercrombie: Low Cholesterol Organ Trio,” JT, 23/6 (1993), 28
  • R. Grosman: “John Abercrombie: éviter l’invitation,” Jh, no.503 (1993), 10
  • F.-J. Hadley: “John Abercrombie: This Ain’t No Chicken Shack,” DB, 61/11 (1994), 30 [incl. discography]
  • J. Rolondi: “Vital Organs: Abercrombie & Scofield Reanimate the Organ Combo,” GP, 29/2 (1995), 63
  • C. Stern: “Gateway Trio: an Axis as Bold as Love,” JT, 25/10 (1995), 30
Down Beat
Guitar Player
Jazz Times (Washington, 1980-)
I. Carr, D. Fairweather, and B. Priestley: Jazz: the Rough Guide (London, 1995, rev. and enlarged 2/2000)
Jazz hot, Jazz-hot