An expressive and influential jazz guitarist as adept with standards as he was with flights into rock-accented fusion, John Abercrombie has died at 72 in New York
His death Tuesday after a long illness was confirmed by his longtime label ECM, where Abercrombie had recorded as a leader and a sideman for more than 40 years. His 1974 debut recording, “Timeless,” featured a trio of drummer Jack DeJohnette and keyboardist Jan Hammer and forged a new direction in jazz fusion with swift, angular runs balanced by a delicate hand with atmospheric ballads.
“John was a big part of my life and early musical adventures,” DeJohnette said in a statement on social media. “His musical contribution will live forever. Miss you brother but will always hear you. You are now truly Timeless.”
Nels Cline, a Los Angeles-born guitarist for the rock band Wilco who has pushed the envelope of jazz in his own recordings, also paid tribute to Abercrombie on Wednesday, writing on Twitter that his “influence on me as both guitarist and as composer is deep and vast, like [his] wondrous legacy.”
Born in Port Chester, N.Y., on Dec. 16, 1944, Abercrombie first picked up the guitar at 14, playing along with Chuck Berry records. He soon discovered jazz through recordings of Barney Kessel and, after high school, he moved to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music. While still a student, he went on tour with organist Johnny Hammond Smith and met Randy and Michael Brecker, who would combine with Abercrombie to form the jazz-rock fusion trio Dreams.
Later, he moved to New York City, where he became an in-demand session guitarist, playing with Gil Evans, Chico Hamilton and Billy Cobham in the early ‘70s before connecting with Manfred Eicher’s German label ECM for the release of “Timeless.” The guitarist soon reunited with DeJohnette and along with former Miles Davis bassist Dave Holland formed the Gateway Trio for two albums in the late 1970s.
A restless sonic explorer, Abercrombie also played electric mandolin on some of his late ‘70s albums as well as McCoy Tyner’s 1980 album “Quartets 4x4.” In the 1980s, he recorded with Michael Brecker and Peter Erskine and began playing a guitar synthesizer hybrid to further expand the reach of his instrument’s voice, but he eventually returned to the familiar electric and acoustic guitar.
"It just felt better because all of a sudden, the flesh of my hand was right on the string,” Abercrombie told NPR in 2000. “I didn't have this piece of plastic that kind of interfered, you know?”
In a review of a 1993 concert after he had moved away from synthesizers, the Times’ Leonard Feather wrote that Abercrombie’s performance “was not exactly the musician many listeners expected to hear …. In no way does the result represent a retrogression. Abercrombie still makes imaginative use of tone colors, of free-jazz concepts, unexpected shifts of mood, tempo and meter. ”
In his later recordings, Abercrombie’s spare, occasionally slippery way with notes could frequently say more than those with flashier styles. His tone was capable of adding a nimble, Eastern-tinged flourish in some of his contributions to labelmate Charles Lloyd’s recordings in the early 2000s.
Abercrombie continued to tour and earn accolades into the next decade, including for his 2012 album “Within a Song,” which paid tribute to influences such as Sonny Rollins, Jim Hall and Ornette Coleman with a deft, understated hand. His final album for ECM, “Up and Coming,” was released earlier this year and featured a quartet that included frequent collaborator Marc Copland on piano.
"I'd like people to perceive me as having a direct connection to the history of jazz guitar, while expanding some musical boundaries," Abercrombie noted on his record label’s website. His influence can still be heard in a broad variety of guitarists who continue pushing at those boundaries, including Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny and John Scofield.
Abercrombie is survived by his wife Lisa.
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