Tempering the Manic with the Sublime
Interview by Mark S. Tucker
With a too-quick recall of nominative guitar gods oft chosen for momentary sales quirks over artistic merit it comes as no surprise that John Abercrombie resides in a twilight niche between general obscurity and critical acclaim. He was there as fusion was being whelped, contributing gigantically, and remaining a chief innovator to this day.
Born in New York and transplanted to Connecticut, Abercrombie took to the guitar in his early teens, playing the usual rock 'n' roll garage gigs, but then got serious, attending Boston's Berklee College of Music, and turning to clubs to hone his developing craftsmanship. At 24, he joined up with Johnny "Hammond" Smith (who often appeared as "Johnny Hammond" to avoid confusion with Jimmy Smith, a much more famous and possibly litigious organist), touring and appearing on Hammond's Nasty.
This led to a chance meeting with the Brecker Bros., who invited him to join their first group, Dreams. Abercrombie appeared on the debut, for him an auspicious outing but one which gave little chance to strut his stuff; he was replaced on the sophomore release by Steve Cropper of all people, as well as Robert Mann and Jeff Kent with such poor discretion, it's not hard to understand why Dreams never enjoyed a third session.
A year later came the stunning Friends ensemble, then-sax-ist/now-pianist Marc Cohen's boggling fusion unit. Friends' sole release was a sizzling chops-fest that singed the ears of all who dared it. Cohen was highly experimental in his approach, and not dissimilar in attack to what Jan Hammer would do a few years later, in the epochal Timeless.
Friends, however, was one of the most outrι fusion LPs of the time and though Abercrombie had been working with some heavyweights (Gato Barbieri, Jack DeJohnette, Gil Evans, Chico Hamilton) and a lightweight (Barry Miles) he'd never been let entirely loose until this moment, and in truth, even this collective of sonic anarchists, he didn't quite endow the guitarist with the full space needed for his explosive style.
The "rhythm section" in this one-off was fairly stellar. Where Cohen had been inducted into Dreams for a short while, and had also associated with Hamilton, bassist Clint Houston came from Herbie Mann, Woody Shaw, and others; demon drummer Jeff Williams sat with Stan Getz and Dave Liebman. Cohen blew with the burning speed of a guitar player and his ultra-nuanced lines were often difficult to separate from Abercrombie's riffs, an arrangement made more famous in the exchanges between Jan Hammer and Tommy Bolin on Billy Cobham's Spectrum. A range of pedals additionally yielded a very Hammer-ish modified organ tone, converted to a Ratledge timbre on the song "Black Vibrations." Of course, the fact that the guitar was mixed well below Cohen's frenetically impressive lines helped the listener separate the two, to whatever praises. The record, heard today, is as revelatory as when it was issued, over three decades ago.
But Abercrombie wasn't destined to be sat upon by the egos of adept confreres. 1974 saw the release of the LP that stands as his definitive statement in most aficionados' minds: Timeless. A tour de force in collaboration with the Mahavishnu Orchestra's already-mentioned Jan Hammer long before he became a Hollywood cine-whore yuckapuck, and a rich one at that (prostitution has its rewards) the LP yet retains a legendary status.
[It was, in fact, the time to catch the mercury-fingered Czecheslovakian ivory-tickler: hot-hot-hot in his prime, which lasted from Mahavishnu up to the duets with violinist Jerry Goodman, burning like a four-alarm fire for three short years. After this, he slowly melted down, slagging into a half-ass semi-discoid drek-meister, one lousy disc after another, until lucking into scoring the hideous yuppie TV melodrama Miami Vice, striking a goldmine and forever leaving serious music behind. Those familiar with that whole, agonizing, wretched later oeuvre shouldn't judge Hammer by its innumerable demerits. Here, with Abercrombie, he was in his full glory, a genius. This transcendent LP, on the sterling ECM label, also brought in Jack DeJohnette, who'd never be able to play like the rambunctious Jeff Williams (the Tony Williams-esque profile in Friends) but tidily acquitted himself well with a trademark sophisticated hand.]
Timeless was a blend of red-hot fusion and mellow laybacks, a commonplace for ECM in those days (with Terje Rypdal and others also on the roster), and a style the label would slowly eschew as time went on, arriving at its recent near-complete avoidance, preferring a concentration on the pristine New Series and a more "chamber jazz" flavor in its austere releases.
In the '70s, though, the guitar was valid as a lead voice for ECM's indulgences, and few were able to more capably claim a seat in the prestigious front pew than Abercrombie. The lengthy "Lungs" and the shorter "Red and Orange" were eruptive stand-outs, as furious with invention and numbing pyrotechnics as one could hope for, but the title cut showed what a master of shimmering beauty Abercrombie could be. It had speedy moments, but was notable for a restrained, glowing, mellifluous essence.
The first of two Gateway releases succeeded Timeless, featuring another trio, this time with Dave Holland pre-empting the keyboards for a highly knowledgeable bass. Abercrombie was completely out front and would pretty much stay there, more than capable of the responsibilities implied. Here, though, after the killer collab with Hammer, one could see a slight drop in intensity. Not that the mind-bending runs were alloyed, nor the speed or dexterity, but the bellicose rock 'n' roll background influence was leashed a trifle; in fact, he'd never again be quite so nakedly brash.
Even his weirdest riffs fell under a more mature voice, one that chose elements wisely and preferred to keep to a plane well to the side of the rockers. If anything, Abercrombie was defining and polishing the outside parameters of jazz guitar. This was the perfect time for DeJohnette's wine-like discernment to underscore him. Make no mistake, "Unshielded Desire" and "Sorcery 1" will amaze any modern-day listener through overflowing power and audacity but, overall, a newer element of refinement was subtly noticeable.
Gateway 2 proved it. This is where Abercrombie's long-running trademark began. From here, he'd finish his tone and style, making unending sophistication his most salient characteristic, somewhat the musical equivalent of pillow talk: complex, daring, athletic, and forever imaginative but masterfully applied with the subtlest of wit and no need to shout. Here, in many ways, "Nexus" was a departure point, a swan song to a collapsing past and a door into Abercrombie's true place in the pantheon. Having roared like an audacious lion for a few seasons, he'd now leave the hunting grounds and roam the savannah, bellying through rarefied aesthetics and the wonders available in the more observant modes of perception. Not one whit of quality was sacrificed, just the hormonal exuberances of youth's first blush.
1976's duet with Oregon's Ralph Towner, Sargasso Sea (a follow-on to the LP Towner and his Oregon mates had done with Larry Coryell, itself succeeding the earlier Coryell/McLaughlin Spaces), was a wrinkle on the theme, stripping the quiet improv concept down to just two instrumental masters exchanging exquisite lines.
Towner remained strictly acoustic, playing piano to the side, and Abercrombie switched off between amplification and matching Ralph au natural. The result was a landmark in guitar music and would provoke another meeting years later. Having witnessed their tour at a dive in Venice Beach, I can say that the sheer brilliance of the duet was astounding, the most abstract and artistic guitar gig I've ever seen (all the sweeter because it was opened by Wayne Johnston's surreal trio Johnston was on leave from the Manhattan Transfer and sowing his wildest oats).
1978's Characters nailed this direction in no uncertain terms. Basically an abstract multi-conversation with himself, the LP was pure beauty on several planes and, unfortunately, one of his most ignored efforts. After the Towner gig, many had been hoping for return to the earliest shred pyrotechnics. The transition was logical, though, adding to a growing foundation in an extremely satisfying genre trend toward solo and duet guitar LPs, from myriad labels over the next decade.
But Abercrombie has always preferred the ideas and energies available in a group setting and so returned to it. His 1979 quartet produced Arcade, in which Richie Beirach, at the height of powers he would not long retain, played a very Towner-esque piano, with George Mraz taking Holland's place and style, and Peter Donald sounding like DeJohnette. The guitarist engaged in constant explorations atop the 3-piece, Beirach occasionally soloing but mostly occupying the middle ground, often echoing Abercrombie's direction, dipping over and above his quotes. John was fully and securely in the quieter mode and has since kept to it, right up to this very moment.
The '70s also marked the commencement of a staggering amount of session work and Abercrombie appeared on many top-flight LPs over the next thirty years. One loses count after tallying 120 releases and the true enumeration exceeds that...over and above the more than 30 other albums under his captaincy as leader.
The men he's appeared with far too numerous to catalogue comprise a near-Who's Who of jazz. Away from the raucous fire of his founding days, everyone dug that unique six-stringed sound and could barely get enough of it. But ECM was ever his home and label-owner Manfred Eicher never tired of the guitar player's ingenuity. Skipping up to the '90s, we'll see a new twist to the master game, but, first, an amusing side-note.
In 1987, Verve/Polygram issued a video tribute to guitar giant Tal Farlow, a stunning gig that featured not only that legendary master alongside Abercrombie, but Larry Carlton, John Scofield, and Larry Coryell as well, with John Pattitucci on bass and Billy Hart handling the skins. As might be expected, the affair was a marvel to behold, but, as would equally be anticipated, the wildly unpredictable and frighteningly talented Coryell went into overdrive, so often his wont, providing a jaw-dropping solo section that had everyone agape. Farlow was wide-eyed and Abercrombie, at one point or another, can be caught grinning. Amidst a coterie of giants, Abercrombie's own playing was exemplary, but even he was tickled at Coryell's over-the-top gusto and performance.
Then, in releases like Animato (1990), a trio with drummer supreme Jon Christensen and synthesizer player Vince Mendoza, the axe-man took a bit darker turn, returning to purer fusion. In something of a second youth, Abercrombie sparked back into free improv and outside atmospherics. He was playing with harmonics a bit more, simultaneously expanding the sliding segments of his bag of finger-tricks. Mendoza had much the same synth style as John Surman (a reedsman who dabbles beautifully on the keys) and set up a number of engaging repeating patterns, off of which Abercrombie bounced and gamboled.
There was a flaw, however. On "Ollie Mention," Christensen showed an extremely spare presence and the entire CD is one in which he seems not entirely comfortable or in place, an exceedingly rare occurrence for someone largely regarded as amongst the very best and most intelligent percussionists planet-wide.
Adam Nussbaum, an interesting intermediary 'twixt Christensen and Erskine, stepped into the seat on '93's While We're Young, while Dan Wall pushed the synth aside and dragged the organ back in, giving the war-horse a somewhat modernized style (as modern as that venerable but quite unyielding and dated instrument would allow).
However, a CD featuring an organ without a peculiarly strong multiplex supporting cast is not going to go over very well; hence, Young turned out to be an Abecrombie rarity: mediocre. Wall dominated too much, with too little too say, and John frequently seemed curiously lethargic, while strikingly more Rypdalian than he'd ever been not an injury by any means, but not expected either. Though he frequently cites these sessions as some of his favorite, they come off as uninspired to the listener. A large part of the problem in this genre is the refusal of jazz organists to understand the dynamic range of the instrument, a trait ferociously demonstrated by rockers like Keith Emerson (ELP) or, more prosaically, Thijs van Leer (Focus). In dates like Young, focal depth shrank and a deadened ambience crept into everything.
No sooner mention Erskine's name than he appears. Dynamics were no problem when it came to 1993's November. John Surman sat in beside the trio: Abercrombie, Erskine (drums), and Marc Johnson (bass). The CD opens with a tweedly plaint by Abercrombie but quickly injects Surman's sax, developing into an improv opening into a jazz-rock-outrι jam. The guitar changes coloration in several ways, and by the time "The Cat's Back" ends, you know you're in much different light than with Young.
Even in its more laid-back moments "J.S." for instance there's palpably more funk present, that bottom-line grit so necessary to authenticity. That didn't not mean we were witnessing the advent of the Fire-Breathing John Abercrombie re-born far from it but rather the resumption of eldritch knowledge and savoir faire re-kindled.
Wall bounced back in 1996, with Tactics, but something had happened. The mood changed completely, as though Surman's ghost had not only never left but been partnered with. Wall had figured things out. The first tune, "Sweet Sixteen," established a lively beachhead that saw Abercrombie trotting out his flash, point-on, yet with atonally intriguing asides, Wall nimbly dancing behind. Nussbaum returned on drums, again proving to be one of the guitarist's most complementary percussionists, constantly maintaining the conversational level of the background.
The CD derived from a 3-night gig in New York, with that fresh in-house vibe that fleshes out what should have been present three years earlier. Most pointedly, though, Abercromie is left the lion's share of the spotlight and the highly personal, less studio-attentive nature of his spontaneous voice is taut as a bow. Several times, there's a Magmic flow and fire to the music, re-translated in the guitarist's own idiom.
2004 saw an unusual team up, with violinist Mark Feldman, backed by Marc Johnson on double-bass and Joey Baron on drums, who edged far more to the Christensen side than anyone else had, playing quietly impressive up-top cymbals. The CD was entitled Class Trip, and if there were any doubts that Abercrombie should be a constant benchmark in fusion, this quelled them.
With Feldman, he was forced to transmute his vocabulary and dig deep, to match the fluid expressivities of that stringed raspbox and create a dynamic balance. Successful, he wafted out some of his best lines of the decade while Feldman alternated between backgrounding and nimble interplay, occasionally trying to force classicality into the colloquy but, far more often, taking Abercrombie's path and concentrating on quieter contrasts and complexities. At times, John even adopted a bit of the Holdsworth playbook.
So remember, whenever you see those highly flawed "Greatest Guitar Players of All Time!" wank polls that the axe mags publish 300 times a year, that guys like Abercrombie are too often left out in the cold yet can set concert halls ablaze with quietly masterful expositions that still impart lessons to the future.
PSF: Let me start off by saying that Speak of the Devil is some of the darkest stuff I've heard you do; the title is completely appropriate. I see it as an extension of Animato, rather than of While We're Young, and I'm wondering if it's an extension of your mood and mind, or just a product of the moment's creativity at the time you recorded it?
JA: No, I just see it as a natural extension of the organ/drums/guitar trio format. It's interesting that you relate it to Animato. I can see that there are a couple of more textural things there, especially the second and third piece. The second piece was a ballad we made up in the studio it has that no-tempo Animato feel but the rest of it more extends from what the band's been playing live. This CD has more abstraction than While We're Young.
PSF: I was caught by the way the Hammond got into that groove more.
JA: Yeah, I understand how you'd see that, but it's also an extension of While We're Young. That release was more composed, more...I'm not sure what the word is...it had a sameness about it, which also occurs on Speak of the Devil.
PSF: On portions of Devil, you really cut loose. Some of the obtuseness you trot out wasn't what I was used to on previous discs.
JA: That's my favorite thing to do right now, because there's a lot of freedom and many ways to express myself. We play structured pieces with a lot of harmony, so I can still explore lyrical jazz, but also get another angle into the netherworld, the stranger stuff, the more abstract, and also the more rock-ish features. I've gotten back into a lot more distortion.
PSF: There are a number of players also returning: Terje Rypdal, Steve Tibbetts...
JA: We've all been there in one way or another. If you go back to the earlier stuff I did with DeJohnette and Holland, or even the first thing I did with Hammer on the organ, it was massively distorted and insane. It's kind of a throwback, getting back into some of the ways I used to play, but now I execute them better.
PSF: I'm glad you brought that up, because I wanted to ask what drew you back to the Hammond, capturing the mood you'd established so long ago.
JA: I've known Dan [Wall, the organ player] for about twelve years now. We played together on an album called Route Two by David Johnson. It came out on a label called Landslide.
PSF: I'm not familiar with it.
JA: Naw, nobody is it was a really small label that I don't think exists anymore.
PSF: Well, Ive got a lot of your side stuff, like with Teri Plumeri and such.
JA: You do? Man, that's even more obscure! But, Dan was in Atlanta for [Route Two], so I met him. He got back to New York, gave me a call, and let me know that if I ever wanted to do any more guitar/organ stuff, to let him know. The time seemed right to me, and I'd done a couple of other LPs wih an organist who lives upstate named Jeff Palmer.
PSF: I've seen the name before. I think I have one of his sides.
JA: Well, he called me to make an album with him and Adam Nussbaum. He didn't want to have any tunes, just wanted to play free, which I thought was really interesting for an organ player. So I walked in and we started to make a record. It was done in about four hours.
PSF: That was Laser Wizard? I'm finding it here as we speak.
JA: Yeah, Laser Wizard. It has some interesting things on it. He had a good saxophone player named Gary Campbell. So we cut it and he called me again about two years later, saying he wanted to cut another, this time using Dave Liebman, and again we weren't using any paper, no pre-written music.
At that time, I was playing a lot of synthesizer, so we made Abracadabra on the Italian Soul Note label. I got with Adam and said, "This is sounding great, this organ, guitar, and drums thing," but we wanted more structurally and Jeff, as great a player as he is, is inclined to go toward the freedom side of things. I had a lot of compositions I wanted play, and Dan's name popped up. So I called him and we set up a rehearsal just to see what it would be like...because Dan doesn't play the organ when he's not with me. He works the piano and he and his wife write tunes she's a singer and songwriter.
PSF: That's a little weird he only plays the organ in sessions with you?
JA: Mm-hmm, but I have a feeling he's going to start getting calls after this because he's the only guy I know of who understands the traditional role of the organ yet can play modern things on it.
PSF: At times, he almost gets a bit Brian Auger-ish, as with the old Oblivion Express.
JA: Could be, could be. I've ever really listened much to them, but Dan's a composite of a lot of things. He's really Larry Young-influenced.
PSF: Really? Young? He was so off the wall, especially on McLaughlin's Extrapolations.
JA: Yeah, but most of the guys from that generation can't do the modern stuff. They're great blues players, though. I recently did a couple of albums with Lonnie Smith...
PSF: Lonnie Liston Smith?
JA: No, everyone [Laughs] everyone asks if it was Lonnie Liston Smith.
PSF: I have a bunch of his LPs, but I don't remember you on them.
JA: No, Lonnie Liston Smith is a piano player. Lonnie Smith is the organ player who used to work with George Benson in the late 60s. You'd recognize him if you saw him: a very dark-skinned black guy who wears a turban.
PSF: Oh, yes, I just got the mental picture.
JA: We call him "The Turbanator" [Laughs]. I recently did two albums with him. One was the music of Coltrane and the other was the music of Jimi Hendrix, which we just finished in trio with Marvin "Smitty" Smith. So, I've been getting into this organ thing, but Dan is the only one, of all the guys, who can play my music. He's harmonically very sophisticated.
PSF: He floats well on the CD. You're always floating, too.
JA: We play really well together. And I really like his writing, his songs. Plus I dig playing with Nussbaum it all gives me a lot of energy so that we can, as you say, float, but we can also get bizarre and burn.
PSF: Lynn was saying that Danny Gottleib's filling in for Adam.
JA: Danny filled in a couple of gigs: one in New York and a recent one in Boston. They're both really good, but Adam, for certain, is the one for the band. He has a drive in his jazz playing that's spectacular. Danny has a little more overall, a bunch of styles, but Adam has the feel I want.
PSF: When Dan plays wth Mark Egan, he has a whole different feel, which more seems to be his forte.
JA: Yeah. Danny's a great floater too, but Adam's the one...and it makes it easier not having two Dans in the band [Laughs].
PSF: Let me switch over. I did an interview with Nels Cline not too long ago...
JA: Oh, I know Nels, sure. Really good guitar player.
PSF: Well, you've influenced him tremendously. I saw him playing behind Brand X at the Alligator Lounge here in L.A., and one of the things that struck me when I spoke with him was, when I told him he was well-received by the audience, he said he hadn't noticed it. Apparently, he concentrates so hard when he's on stage that he really doesn't get into a rapport with the audience he's fully into the music. Do you get into that when you play, or are you aware of the audiences?
JA: I'm very aware of the audience. Like him, I never used to be, but when I started working with my own bands over the years, well, you become more aware of things when you become a leader, when you're fronting a band. You have to mumble something into a microphone once in a while and that kind of thing [Laughter]. The places I play jazz clubs, night clubs you kind of have to say a few things to the audience. They expect it. So when I see a couple and they're reading the business section while I'm playing...[Laughter]. Once I'm in the middle of a tune, though, I'm nowhere near as much affected.
PSF: I saw you with Towner years ago at Hop Sing's in Venice Beach. Between songs, you'd speak to the audience, but when you and Ralph got back into it, you'd go off somewhere.
JA: That definitely happens. To be aware of the audience while you're playing...you couldn't do that unless the gig was more show oriented. A singer or an entertainer will be working with an audience and be right into it, but musicians like us have to go off to create the music. Hopefully, when people get into it, they can follow; we like it when they trace our train of thought. Sometimes, you'll find audiences that are listening so hard that they'll actually follow some bizarre part of an improvisation and respond to it with applause. That's when you know you have a good audience, but it's difficult because they have to listen very hard.
PSF: What do you think of audiences nowadays?
JA: Depends on where I play. I find they haven't changed a whole lot. What has changed is the size. In the States, they've gotten smaller.
PSF: Especially for your type of music.
JA: Yeah, they don't come out in droves anymore, especially in L.A. The last time I played Los Angeles, it was bad, but the last time I played San Francisco, it was really poor, and that's unusual because S.F. had always been a good town for me. But I find the quality of the audience, the people who come to genuinely check you out, is really good. The only thing I find different is that there's less of them. That's why we go to Europe so much; there's more interest in what we do there.
PSF: They're into the art of it.
JA: Into art, right. People there will go to hear me play, then turn around and attend a be-bop concert, then find some really abstract free music; whereas, here, the people who like be-bop wouldn't be caught dead listening to me or Frisell play. And vice-versa: people into avant-garde music wouldn't listen to be-bop. They don't realize that it's all just music. I mean, I have my likes and dislikes but, now, when I get through with dinner, I might put Sinatra on. I love Frank! I dig his older stuff. Or I might throw on Grant Green playing with an orchestra. Or Bill Evans or Jim Hall, things that I grew up with I tend to like musics that are connected to what I do more than really remote, but I'll listen to stuff that has nothing to do with what I'm playing. I listen to rock and that'll bleed into what I'm doing, The other day I was playing with Smitty and it sounded like heavy metal...kinda...or at least my version of it.
PSF: I can't see you doing all the blocked power chords.
JA: It wasn't really the power chords, it was more linear: fast, hammer-ons, that sort of thing. I guess it'd be called "shredding," but it had the quality and I was doing it because Smitty was playing so strongly. We got into it and I realized the sound had gotten into my music because I'd heard some of it elsewhere. When I hear a rock guitar player and he's good, or she's good, and I like it, it'll seep into the music somehow. I don't know for how long...I mean...[Laughs]...I don't if I have the stamina to play like that too long!
PSF: Way back, it used to be that if you had some kind of interest and decent chops, you could cut an album; nowadays, you gotta kill to get one out. The technical finesse is unbelievable.
JA: Yep, the level of the players is really high. When I was coming up, there weren't as many and it was a very different scene.
PSF: And look at the rapidity of it. Back in, for instance, the Baroque days, you got into playing maybe at six but, at 56, you were still playing pretty much the same thing. Not a whole lot of progression was going on, but now...within a 20 year span, the maturation process becomes incredible across all genres.
JA: True. There's a lot of different stuff now, and it's hard to know what to call it. I mean, the term jazz, as we know it, means many things to different people. It was based in the blues and created by black people but then improvisation came along and put it in a much larger picture. There are so many ways to approach improvising nowadays.
It's great because anyone can get involved in it. Before, jazz was kind of an elitist thing. I recently read an interview with James "Blood" Ulmer and he was talking about how, to play jazz, you really had to go to a school of some sort, whether it was street school or an institution of higher learning, because the music's really complicated.
PSF: Wynton Marsalis says the same thing.
JA: I think it's absolutely true, and Ulmer was saying that what he likes to play is closer to funk; to play that, you can learn in a different way. You're kinda preaching in that case, but not as an academic. It's coming from a different place.
PSF: From your feelings.
JA: Exactly. So I think jazz, in the way I listen to it, takes a lot of structure and education. It's like learning to be a really good painter, or whatever. You have to learn the craft, then you can go off somewhere else.
PSF: That seems to be lost nowadays. Many musicians have only just so much to say, then repeat it endlessly.
JA: That's why we're seeing a lot of guys returning to playing in an older style. I wish people would find something different to play, but the fact that they're moving over to stuff like Freddie Hubbard and guys like that from all those years ago...
PSF: ...all the CTI stuff...
JA: ...yes, and earlier than that, the Blue Note style [Laughs]. Guys are dressing now like they did in the Blue Note days and then playing that way. It's kind of a throwback, but it's also fashionable and there's a service there. That sound went missing for a lot of kids today who, when they finally hear it, say "Wow! That's great shit! Let's play it!"
PSF: In that case, let's also go back, way back, to when I first discovered you, on the Friends LP from '72.
JA: Oh my God...
PSF: That record's still an intellectual and aesthetic tonic for me.
JA: It's pretty wild.
PSF: You guys were playing your brains out! It was revelatory I'd never heard such a cross between old trad jazz guitar leads, rock, and what was back then newly emerging, cutting-edge fusion. What was the story behind that effort, and why didn't you guys produce more? It'd hold up flawlessly today.
JA: That was a friend of mine, Marc Cohen, who now is a piano player. Then, he played electric alto sax, modified with an odd pick-up unit Randy Brecker had the same unit and he ran in through a machine called a Condor. It was like an inter-device allowing you to run any effects you wanted. Marc had more electric shit hooked up to that horn than I did to my guitar! He had echo-plexes, fuzz tones, all kinds of stuff.
PSF: He was pulling a Klemmer.
JA: Actually, he wanted to be a John McLaughlin on the sax...I guess it was similar to Klemmer but I don't really think he was influenced by anyone. He was just hearing that kind of intensity, those kinds of lines and harmonies, and the only way to do it was through that setup. The idea for the LP just kind of came together in a loft in New York. Marc's friend, who owned a small record label Oblivion had access to the Columbia University "recording studio," which I think had, maybe, just a four-track tape recorder, an old TEAC or a Revox...almost home equipment [Laughs]...it's hard to recall exactly how they were rigged out, but we just went there from his loft and did it.
It was very bizarre, a great little document, but the reason that we never did any more was that we weren't a group. We just got together, jammed, and screwed around. None of us had any inroads to the record companies in those days. If you really check out some of the sax playing, he sounds more like a guitar than I do.
PSF: One of the LPs that most sticks in people's heads is Timeless, the one that had you and Jan Hammer going nuts on "Lungs" and "Red and Orange." While the rest of the album quieted down, grew a lot more mannered, and indicated the direction you were going to chiefly go in. What made you decide to rein it in?
JA: Well, first of all, it was my first record date as a leader and I really wanted to make a statement. I didn't want it to be a bunch of jam sessions. At the time, I had only a couple of ballads and the tune "Timeless," and wasn't sure what kind of tune it was. So I told Jan, because we were old friends we used to hang out in Boston that I wanted to do a record date, but needed some burning material. He had the two songs you mentioned, so I thought that would be an interesting situation.
He's one of the only other guys I know who can play the organ that well. He'd just gotten ahold of a mini-moog, or had been using one with Mahavishnu, so he dubbed it in, showing that amazing solo on "Timeless." And then there was Jack, and you can't get a better drummer than him, so...
PSF: I've always wanted to ask this: in '76, Gerry Niewood put an album out called Timepiece, that covered "Timeless" and "Ralph's Piano Waltz"...
JA: Yeah, I remember it. That was really odd.
PSF: That's what I thought, too. Is there a story behind it?
JA: No, he just happened to really like those songs. I had only met Gerry once in my life but he'd heard the record, liked the songs, and wanted to record them. I remember listening to them and thinking the versions were okay.
PSF: Well...they were a bit weak compared to yours.
JA: He had actually taken some things I'd improvised around the melody and thought they were part of the melody itself, so he'd taken some of it a little too literally. But it was nice to hear someone play my songs.
PSF: Taking things beyond ballads for a moment, when I heard "Still" off Current Events, it knocked me off my chair.
JA: Oh, you liked that one?
PSF: You have a talent for understatement. I consider that song to be a masterpiece of a form of ambient music. What really struck me, and again: you love organ, was that organ-ish sound you achieved, that almost exactly replicates a keyboard...how did you come up with it?
JA: It was a keyboard.
PSF: It was?
JA: [Laughs] Yeah, I was playing a keyboard.
PSF: I guess that explains that [Laughter]. Youre not credited for it, you know...
JA: You know what I think I did with that, now that I think about it...that was with a sequencer, and I can't remember if I played it on a keyboard or on a guitar triggering the keyboard. If it was, it triggered a Casio CZ101, which is the cheapest cheesiest keyboard you can buy [Laughter].
Yeah, it was really bad but it had an organ sound I liked, so I altered it a bit until it had a really sweet pure sound. But the keys on that thing were small, so I may have triggered it instead. I played it 'til I got it right, then stored it on a sequencer. That's probably why it wasn't credited. I do play piano so I might have actually played it. [Laughs] I really don't remember.
PSF: The reason I was thinking of it was because I was reading your entry in Morton and Cook's marvelous Penguin Guide to Jazz, where they were rapturing over the Characters release, which I also love. I've always struck by the way you mixed up acoustic and electric in different ways while managing to maintain homogenous airs. Are you planning on doing something like that again?
JA: Yes, but I want to keep it a little more acoustic. That's been one of the things in the back of my head, but I get so involved with my bands and they kinda take precedence.
PSF: I think it'd probably go over well, considering the New Age syndrome on the airwaves.
JA: It probably would. I think some of the songs on Characters already get played on those stations. The opener, "Parable," was always one of my favorites. I did a lot of homework for that album. Even though some of it sounds really free, it had to be very, very prepared. I was really pleased when I did it I put a lot of work into it. In fact, I came across my old rehearsal tapes and they're very close to the album itself. I have a Revox quarter-track and you can bounce things around endlessly with that. I'm going out with Peter Erskine and Marc Johnson, though, soon, the November band.
PSF: You were playing with Towner for a while. I think Ralph should be and this is the wrong term, but I can't think of another one at the moment venerated as a Segovia, especially now that Segovia's gone.
JA: They should take some of Ralph's music and put it in a place of honor. He's one of my biggest influences for writing. I know I don't sound like him but when I met him and Richie Beirach, I wasn't writing much, so I played their tunes. I was very influenced then by anyone who wasn't writing be-bop, and they definitely were not. Yeah, those two were a big influence on me, as composers and as players.
PSF: Are you planning on any more work with Ralph?
JA: We speak, but he's been dividing his time between living in Seattle and the woman he's married to, who lives in Palermo, Sicily, so his commute is pretty far out. He's about as far from me as you can get. We're definitely going to do something, I just don't know when. I really think that'll be a lot of fun.
PSF: You keep mentioning Boston. Are you from there?
JA: No, but I went to school there. From 1962, when I graduated this'll date me but when I graduated, I went right from high school, so I was not even 17, into Berklee. I spent eight years in Boston, four of them in the school, for different reasons: partly because I wanted to learn music, and partly because I wanted to avoid the draft.
Those were very serious times. People were getting drafted left and right. I wanted a student deferment and to be a teacher, which I never was...not in the high school sense, anyway. I was a local Boston musician and worked gigs. Mick Goodrick was my oldest friend there so we hung out all the time. We got all the best gigs in Boston. It was fun and a great place to learn, but at some point, I realized I had to come to New York. I was made an offer to play in a fusion band called Dreams.
PSF: Yeah, progressive-music minutiae fanatics know that gig well.
JA: Then I played with Chico Hamilton.
PSF: Really? I like some of Chico's stuff but I never recalled you...
JA: No, that never recorded. But it's what included Marc Cohen on electric alto. His name is now Marc Copeland. He changed his instrument and his name. He's now a wonderful piano player.
PSF: You play an instrument that's little used: the electric mandolin. Have you ever heard another musician who plays it: Srinivas?
JA: I've heard about that guy but haven't heard his music.
PSF: He'll take the top of your head off, one of the best musicians on the planet.
JA: I'm sure he is, from what I've been told. Well, mine was actually like a soprano guitar, though the proper name for it is piccolo guitar, because it's an octave above the regular instrument. The open strings are really the twelfth fret. I learned about the instrument because of Jerry Goodman from Mahavishnu...because he was a violin player and, of course, a mandolin is tuned in fifths.
I was at a jam session one time and he had this instrument. I tried it and liked it, so I went to Manny's Music and bought one for, like, $100 and took it out in a brown paper bag [Laughter] because they had no case for it. I tried to play it like a mandolin for a while but it was just too much for me to learn another instrument. One day, though, I just took out some skinny guitar strings and wondered how high I could tune the sucker. I got it to an octave above the guitar and that became my trademark for a while. I used it not only with Ralph but with the quartet I had with Richie Beirach.
PSF: Beirach's good. I have to wonder why he isn't making more of a mark.
JA: Well, he's trying but it's hard. Tough business.
PSF: I've always thought your music wold be perfect for film scores. It's easily the equal of Mark Isham's or Wim Wenders'. Have you been asked?
JA: I've never been asked.
JA: Yeah, I'm a little surprised. I have a cousin who's an actor, same last name as me, and he lives in L.A. He's been trying to get my music introduced to people out there. Some have really liked it, taken a shine to it, but no one's asked me to do anything. It'd be nice, as long as I didn't have to change anything I do. Isham's amazing that way. But I've never pursued that work either. Sometimes you have to chase after it. People may say "Yeah, I like your work," but unless you go after it, it doesn't happen. I decided I really wanted to be a player rather than a writer, rather than getting involved in that sort of thing. I've always concentrated on having bands.
PSF: Let me get your opinions on a few guitar players. To start, one of the guys I think is marvelous but greatly underappreciated: Steve Khan.
JA: Steve's wonderful. He's a great all-around guitar player. He can play jazz, rock, fusion; very adaptable. He's one of my old friends, even though we don't hang out. We've been on demo sessions together and hung out often in the early days. He used to come over to hear my bands and liked what I was into yet he was in the studios. He kind of goes between the two worlds: the studio world and wanting to be more of a full-time player. It's hard to bridge that gap.
PSF: How about Mike Stern?
JA: Like everyone, I've never heard anyone play that accurately in my life. I mean, he's such a wonderfully precise soulful player. I went down to where he plays in New York, called the "55 Bar, and hadn't heard him live for, oh, five years. I had the greatest time listening to him. He always goes for the gusto, especially when he heads for what Adam (Nussbaum) calls "the trouble switch," the distortion box. Mike was busy comp-ing for a bass solo and, when he came in for his solo, Adam snuck up and clicked on his fuzz box without him knowing it. Mike immediately switched over and loved it. It was great. He's one of the great guitar players.
PSF: Frank Zappa, what do you think of him?
JA: I love Frank's playing. Most people don't think of him as a player but I used to listen to his early albums and was taken with the fact that he always sounded like he was improvising. It didn't seem like he was playing anything pre-determined, just going with what was in his head and what the music told him to play. That's my favorite kind of playing. I just like to hear people improvising if they take a risk and make a mistake, that's okay.
PSF: What do you think of cats like Derek Bailey then?
JA: I don't know how to categorize music like that. The little bit I've heard, I liked. I heard him play a concert once in England, with a trio and, probably for about five or six minutes, it was the best music I ever heard in my life. After that, it became kind of...
JA: Yeah. It didn't move a lot for me. At that time, I wasn't ready to hear a lot of it. Maybe I'll go back and listen to him some more.
PSF: Ever listen to Robert Fripp?
JA: A little bit, not a whole lot, but, yeah, I admire him too. I basically like anyone who tries their own thing and plays well with a lot of commitment.
PSF: That's Fripp all over.
JA: Sure, and it could be anyone. I love Grant Green, who was totally committed to what he did. I did that Hendrix LP, which unfortunately will only be released in Japan, and that put me back into listening to Hendrix. He's another type of player, but when you listen to him, you're hearing someone committed to what he's doing...and improvising on top. That's what I like about him, or Wes Montgommery, or Mike Stern. That quality: when you hear people who are into it, they could be playing anything.
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