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John Laird Abercrombie (December 16, 1944 - August 22, 2017) was an American jazz guitarist. His work explored jazz fusion, free jazz, and avant-garde jazz. Abercrombie studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. He was known for his understated style and his work with organ trios.
John Abercrombie, KJAZ radio, Alameda, California, August 11, 1981
Abercrombie graduated from Berklee in 1967 and attended North Texas State University before moving to New York City in 1969. He became a popular session musician, recording with Gato Barbieri in 1971, Barry Miles in 1972, and Gil Evans in 1974. In 1969 he joined the Brecker Brothers in the jazz-rock fusion band Dreams. He continued to play fusion in Billy Cobham's band, but found that he disliked its focus on rock over jazz. Nonetheless his reputation grew with the popularity of both Cobham and Dreams. The band shared billing with such acts as the Doobie Brothers, but Abercrombie found his career taking an unwanted direction. "One night we appeared at the Spectrum in Philadelphia and I thought, 'What am I doing here?' It just didn't compute."
An invitation from drummer Jack DeJohnette led to the fulfillment of Abercrombie's desire to play in a jazz-oriented ensemble. Around the same time, record producer Manfred Eicher, founder and president of ECM Records, invited him to record an album. He recorded his first solo album, Timeless, with DeJohnette and keyboardist Jan Hammer, who had been his roommate in the 1960s. In 1975 he formed the band Gateway with DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland, recording the albums Gateway (1976) and Gateway 2 (1978). Though Abercrombie would record for other labels going forward, ECM became his mainstay, and his association with that label continued for the rest of his career.
Working as a leader
The Gateway band played songs written by all three members, in a free jazz style. Following his albums as a member of the Gateway trio, Abercrombie moved to playing in a more traditional style, recording for ECM three albums, Arcade (1979), Abercrombie Quartet (1979), and M (1981) with a quartet that included pianist Richie Beirach, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Peter Donald. Abercrombie said, "it was extremely important to have that group ... it was my first opportunity to really be a leader and write consistently for the same group of musicians." During the mid-1970s and into the 1980s, he contributed to ensembles led by DeJohnette and participated in other sessions for ECM, occasionally doubling on electric mandolin. He toured with guitarist Ralph Towner with whom he recorded two albums, Sargasso Sea (1976) and Five Years Later (1981). During the mid-1980s, he continued to play standards with bassist George Mraz, and he played in a bop duo with guitarist John Scofield. He also appeared on a number of ECM releases in various ensembles with other artists on the label.
Abercrombie continued to tour and record to the end of his life. He also continued to release albums on the ECM label, an association which lasted for more than 40 years. As he said in an interview, "I'd like people to perceive me as having a direct connection to the history of jazz guitar, while expanding some musical boundaries."