Music » Music Stories & Interviews


There's an old joke that periodically makes the rounds in jazz circles: Don't trust anyone who tells you he loves free jazz; he will probably lie about other things, too.

Judging by his long, successful career as an influential and popular purveyor of free, extended improvisation, guitarist John Abercrombie doesn't fit the free jazz mold. (Is that phrase an oxymoron?) Free jazz can often slide into a cacophonic exercise in self-indulgence, like a roomful of people talking at each other at the top of their lungs - lots of noise, no communication. Abercrombie's extended group improvisations are more like real conversations, with players listening to and playing off each other: freely digressing, straying far afield, but frequently returning to the same theme. There is form, structure, and direction. Ten or 15 minutes later, when the song ends, you feel like you've been somewhere. A musical story has been told with a unique, virtuoso voice.

Yet Abercrombie can't comfortably wear the fusion label, either, although Timeless, his first album as a leader on the progressive ECM label in 1974, featured his effect-laden electric guitar trading machine-gun licks at break-neck speed with piano/synth/organ player Jan Hammer and drummer Jack DeJohnette. And bebop he's not, although he knows the vocabulary well and swings like a pendulum. And he sure ain't trad, although he is firmly grounded in jazz tradition, as he explains in a 1988 interview in Jazziz: "Carrying the tradition of jazz guitar from Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt to the present day is a very important aspect of my music ... 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 has eluded classification for decades. Perhaps the best description of what he does is the category he helped define with his long association with ECM: chamber jazz - an intimate, acoustic-based ensemble improvising extensively while employing elements of classical and world music. It's a label broad enough to encompass all of the music Abercrombie has created during his decades-long career: the seminal originals on the Gateway albums in the '70s with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette; the standards with bassist Don Thompson on Witchcraft in the '80s; the perfect blending of acoustic and electric in his duets with


8:30 & 10:30pm
Saturday, March 22
$20 at the door
Carmen's de la Calle Cafe
720 E. Mistletoe
guitarist Ralph Towner; his outings in the '90s with Don Wall on organ and Adam Nussbaum on drums. And on his latest release, Cat 'n' Mouse, with bassist Marc Johnson, drummer Joey Baron, and violinist Mark Feldman, the chamber moniker is reinforced by the near-classical instrumentation and the contrapuntal conversation between the strings.

On Saturday, March 22, Thrasher/Gibbs and Ben Donnelly Productions bring Abercrombie and his innovative yet accessible music to Carmen's, where he will record with the Third Trio from the Sun, a group of excellent ensemble improvisers in their own right. By definition, it may not be free jazz; but it's certainly liberating. And everyone will truly love it. No lie. •

Support Local Journalism.
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.