John Abercrombie has been at the forefront of modern Jazz guitar for several decades. To categorize his playing as simply “Jazz” does it little justice. Though John’s acute Jazz sensibilities run through his body of work, it is the breathtaking scope of his musical explorations that define him most. Whether blasting with an organ trio, working with musical greats like Dave Holland, Peter Erskine, and John Scofield, or engaging in beautifully intuitive duo work with Ralph Towner, John’s highly articulate musical voice shines through. John stopped in to talk a little about his playing, his VOX guitars, and his road map for future musical excursions.
VOX: You once shared that improvising was composing in real time to you. You value the interplay among the players, the atmosphere in the room, where the other players’ musical voices lead you. Given the almost impossibly diverse settings you compose for and perform in, how would you define how your approach changes based on the given ensemble?
John: My approach doesn’t change that radically from ensemble to ensemble. I do, however, listen carefully, and try to become part of the group sound. To me, that’s the most important part of it all. I also try and interact musically with the other players, and play off of what they play, as opposed to just playing something over them.
VOX: You once did a gig with Ralph Towner where you took the train in from NYC and met Ralph as just as he was arriving from Austria. No rehearsals, no idea what the tunes would be and no time to even warm up. You guys killed it that night. Amazing! How do you prepare yourself for situations that are nearly fully improvised? What kind of light-speed self-editing sensibilities do you have that enable you to create such fully realized pieces on the spot?
John: The concert with Ralph Towner wasn’t fully improvised. No concert is. What we do is play certain pieces that we’ve played before, and let some things just happen.
So you always seem to end up with songs that have forms, and then you improvise on those structures. And there is room for things that are, as you say, more fully improvised.
VOX: You work hard to unearth the capabilities of every note you play. Your use of dynamics, wide tonal variations, and shading pulls every ounce of expression from the guitar. Do you find that each individual guitar speaks to you in a way that reveals its own voice?
John: Of course, each guitar will influence my approach to playing a bit, but the dynamics, tonal nuances, etc., are just part of the music itself. Without these elements, there would be no expression, and the music would just sound very flat.
VOX: What would you tell other guitarists when it comes to finding a guitar that will allow them to discover their own voice on the instrument?
John: I think that discovering your own voice, as you say, just happens after years of playing. You build a language slowly and also a touch on your instrument.
An individual’s particular guitar should just fit his sound and language that he or she is hearing. In my case, I like small to medium shaped necks, light strings, low action, etc. Of course, the actual sound of the guitar is important, but I find that I can do what I’m hearing, on many different instruments, as long as they play easy for me.
VOX: You’ve used quite an array of guitars over the years. What is it about the VOX Virage guitars that make it work for you as an expressive tool?
John: The Vox Virage works well for me because of the things I mentioned in the previous question. The neck is the perfect size and shape for me while the body size and weight suit me quite well. I believe that the one f-hole gives just a bit more openness to it that is very pleasing.
VOX: The VOX Virage guitars have unique pickup switching controls that allow you to get anything from a bright, crisp clean tone up to a wooly, thick lead sound. How do you approach finding the right sound to express yourself? Is it trial and error or have you settled on one setting that does it all for you?
John: I pretty much use the neck lead mode or the bridge lead mode. On occasion, I use the middle position. It all works for me.
VOX: VOX Virage guitars are unique in several ways, including that they are semi-hollow guitars carved from all solid woods that influence the sound and response of the instrument. The internal Tone Bars allow the body to vibrate fully without feedback problems. Which models are you using now and what do the different woods do to the voice of the guitars?
John: The guitar I’m playing now is the VOX Virage single cutaway model, and it’s all Mahogany. I really like the warmth and sustain that this model gives me.
VOX: Your four decade long relationship with highly respected record label ECM has produced some groundbreaking albums. Given your busy tour schedule, what are your plans for your next recording and also your next live band?
John: The most recent recording for ECM is called Within a Song, with Joe Lovano, Joey Baron, and Drew Gress. It’s more of a Jazz recording, in the traditional sense, than others I’ve done before. It’s already released in Europe, and is officially due out here in late July. I’ll be playing in August with this band for five nights at Birdland in NYC. I’ll be touring Europe in early November with the same rhythm section, but with Billy Drewes on saxophone instead of Lovano.
VOX: Sounds great! Thanks for your time!