John Abercrombie's career weaves through the golden age of guitar improvisation with understated brilliance. His burnished, precise and intelligent playing has appeared on hundreds of recordings, most notably in a nearly 40-year recording association with European jazz label ECM, with more than 40 albums released.
If Abercrombie never quite had the popular breakthrough of peers such as Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, he's been successful enough to explore a wide sonic landscape free of commercial calculation with consistently rewarding results.
Invitations to university residencies, such as the role he's filling as guest artist at Virginia Commonwealth University, once were a novelty for guitar players. "Usually they hire brass players or saxophone players," he says. "They are more inclined to be in the education mode."
A culminating performance April 16 will feature several of his compositions arranged for VCU's premier Jazz Orchestra I. "I don't know how to lead a big band," Abercrombie acknowledges. "I'm not a big band aficionado. ... But I've done enough of this, I like to play with them, and it is usually fun."
While the music business evolves, or devolves, as a result of the Internet and the economic downturn, teaching is becoming central. "I teach one day a week at SUNY Purchase," Abercrombie says — "a two-hour composition class, and then five back-to-back private students." He has another residency scheduled for Quebec City in July, and another yet to be finalized in Jerusalem.
Abercrombie was part of the first wave of university-level jazz education at the pioneering Berklee College of Music in Boston. Now it's the world's largest independent college of contemporary music. "When I went there it was 10 guitar students," he says, "Maybe 20 teachers, if there were even that. There were 200 people in the whole school. Now there are thousands."
Abercrombie's career took off when he moved to New York in the late '60s to join the early jazz-rock band Dreams. The amalgamation of improvisation and electronic instruments, soon to be re-branded as "fusion," was the era's most popular from of jazz. "It was a real earth-shaking thing," he says. "There were a lot of bands doing that kind of thing. But John McLaughlin's [Mahavishnu Orchestra] was the best. It was so good and so original. ... After that band I don't know why anybody else tried to play that stuff."
After Dreams, Abercrombie played in Mahavishnu drummer Billy Cobham's band. His ECM debut, "Timeless," featured Mahavishnu keyboardist Jan Hammer. But the high-volume appeal of fusion waned. "You are playing at 20,000 decibels and improvising over one chord with a distortion box," he says. "It's amazing fun, but it's not like playing any pure kind of jazz. You get so far away from that idea that you want to get back to it."
His career-defining work on ECM is subtle, sophisticated, melodic and textured. There's tremendous variety from the years in his mostly small-group recordings, which Abercrombie credits to ever-shifting musical settings — various duos, trios with bass or organ, quartets with saxophone, trumpet or violin. "There is only so much you can change in the way you play," he says. "Changing the environment is one thing you can do. Why make the same record twice?"
The VCU performance provides yet another novel setting. "For people who know my work, this big-band music really fits the way I play," Abercrombie says. "If you don't know much music, then come with an open mind. I think you will get a good dose of what I play."
Modern improvised music can be daunting, but Abercrombie's sonic adventurousness is combined with a folklike lyrical approachability. "No one," he promises with understated wit, "Will want to run screaming from the theater." S
John Abercrombie plays at the Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, Sonia Vlahcevic Concert Hall, on Tuesday, April 16, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $7 in advance, $10 at the door, and free with VCU student I.D.