By Jacob Katel
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By Nate "Igor" Smith
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By Jacob Katel
If music is a journey, then John Abercrombie is a tour guide through a strange and wonderful land. A ride on the back of his guitar takes a listener through what appears, at first glance, to be a jazzy pastoral landscape. And just when you think the scenery is predictable, it moves off at odd angles into territory both familiar and unlike any place you've ever been. It's an easy, disquieting sail to another world.
Abercrombie's music is often a contradiction, a shout in hushed voices, with the lullaby tones of his guitar working along complicated bop progressions that can keep you on the edge of your seat. A guitarist firmly in the Wes Montgomery/John McLaughlin lineage of jazz-guitar players, he's also created his own distinct and modern voice with the use of various electronics, like phase shifters and guitar synthesizers, and the ability to take from a range of forms as diverse as rock and Eastern music. "Carrying the tradition of jazz guitar from Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt to the present day is a very important aspect of my music," Abercrombie has said. "I'd like people to perceive me as having a direct connection to the history of jazz guitar, while expanding some musical boundaries which may not always involve the guitar itself."
Abercrombie's own history goes back to Berklee College of Music in Boston, picking up jobs at local clubs and bars, playing funky jazz with organist Johnny Hammond and jazz-rock in the group Dreams, while gigging with a slew of New York jazz masters. But his first big splash on the jazz scene came with his ethereal sound on Timeless, an album that featured Jan Hammer on organ and Jack DeJohnette on drums -- a sound and band setup (the organ trio) that would become Abercrombie's signature. The core of that style has continued, with various permutations and detours, to his most recent release, Open Land, a further variation on the organ-trio theme. It's the same perpetually surprising solos and cliché-free compositions for which Abercrombie is known, but with the addition of a saxophone, trumpet, and violin.
For his upcoming release, Cat 'N' Mouse, due out the end of this month, he's dropped the organ and created something of a string ensemble, with drums, bass, and violin, for a sound that's even more spacious and open. "This particular band, with the violin and the instrumentation of the band, has a way of improvising freely that for me is more interesting sometimes than other free improvisations I've done, so I wanted to pursue that a little more," explains Abercrombie from his home in New York. "I didn't want to just keep the organ; I wanted something a little more abstract and something a little more open-sounding. I guess you could say [Cat 'N' Mouse is] a continuation of Open Land, like Son of Open Land or something.
"It was very inspiring and makes me look forward to playing with these guys, and just to play some new music because that's what I try to do," he continues. "Especially with my own projects, you try and develop a band, and when that band reaches a certain point, then maybe you need to change direction." This direction includes some interesting stops, like the completely improvised piece "Third Stream Samba" (which has nothing to do with Brazil). The piece is quiet and vast and feels like background music until the strange pattern of notes pulls you in and makes you wonder where the song is headed. "It's very chamberlike, almost a slightly more abstract slant," he observes. "[Violinist Mark Feldman] brings a very strong classical influence in the way he improvises. He's also the only violinist I know who can improvise not only very freely in that way but can also improvise over a lot of my songs, which are not that easy to improvise on, because they're not just standard songs; they're not conventional harmony and movement."