John Abercrombie 1944 – 2017

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The final two recordings by guitarist John Abercrombie for the Munich-based ECM label – the tranquil and reflective 39 Steps and Up and Coming – seemed to provide a kind of peaceful resolution to his life that had been shattered on 7 December 2003 by a fire that destroyed his Putnam Valley, N.Y. home, together with a priceless archive and a collection of 13 guitars, including an old Gibson 175.

A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Abercrombie was a founding member of the jazz-rock group Dreams in 1969 that included tenor saxophonist Mike Brecker and drummer Billy Cobham in its line-up, two musicians with whom he formed a lasting musical relationship. Signed by the Columbia label, Dreams helped put Abercrombie's name on the map, and stints with Chico Hamilton, Jeremy Steig, Barry Miles, Gil Evans and Gato Barbieri followed. In 1974 he joined Billy Cobham's Spectrum whose popularity brought his name before a wider public. In the summer of 1974 he made his first recording under his own name for ECM, Timeless, with Jan Hammer on keyboards and Jack DeJohnette – a lifelong friend – on drums. It marked the beginning of an association that would last the rest of his life.

The ECM website indicates that he appeared on 51 albums either as a leader or sideman. During that time, he consolidated his musical philosophy which centered around small, intimate ensembles, with an ethos that embraced both open and closed forms and an interactive approach to improvisation. His albums with Jack DeJohnette's New Directions and the Gateway Trio, with Dave Holland and DeJohnette, saw him consolidating this tactic.

Often overlooked, but genuine jazz classics in their own right, were Abercrombie's albums Night (1984) and Getting There (1988), which were both graced by Abercrombie's long-time friend Mike Brecker. Yet these albums represent only a small part of his ECM legacy, which attests to his remarkable range as a musician, for example the duets with Ralph Towner, Jan Garbarek's Eventyr, Charles Lloyd's The Water Is Wide and Hyperion with Higgins, Collin Walcott's Grazing Dreams, Enrico Rava's The Pilgrim and the Stars and the Kenny Wheeler classic Deer Wan with Jan Garbarek, Ralph Towner, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette.

John Abercrombie died peacefully after a long illness at Hudson Valley Hospital, outside of Peekskill, NY, with his family present.

– Stuart Nicholson

– Photo by Tim Dickeson