As a teenager newly arrived at the then-Berklee School of Music in the early 1960s, jazz guitarist John Abercrombie was so intimidated by musicians he emulated – and even his fellow students – that he almost quit.
After listening to a classmate practice tunes by legendary bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker, “I felt terrible,” he told Downbeat magazine’s Dan Ouellette for a 2012 feature.
“I’ll never be able to play this music. It’s too hard,” Mr. Abercrombie recalled thinking, but instead he “stuck it out. I didn’t know what else to do. If that didn’t work, well, I thought I could go home and pump gas. I could give it up and become one of everyone else.”
Instead, he became one of the top improvisational guitarists of his generation, ranging widely across a spectrum that included electric jazz-rock fusion and lyrical acoustic pieces, post-fusion and post-bop. Mr. Abercrombie was 72 when he died Tuesday in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y. His brother-in-law, Gary Lefkowitz, told The New York Times that the cause was heart failure.
“Every guitar solo was an adventure in both sonic and melodic development, with lines and colors climbing over and thru the glowing fires of the rhythm section,” Globe critic Bob Blumenthal wrote of Mr. Abercrombie’s playing when his trio performed at Johnny D’s in Somerville in May of 1993.
As a bandleader or sideman, Mr. Abercrombie recorded dozens of albums, most of them for the ECM Records label, with whom he had a decades-long relationship that stretched from 1975’s “Timeless,” his debut as a leader, to “Up and Coming,” which he released with his quartet in January.
Joined by keyboardist Jan Hammer and drummer Jack DeJohnette, Mr. Abercrombie used his first album 42 years ago to announce his range, displaying electric and acoustic finesse through a mix of cool ballads and hot fusion. One reviewer said the album’s music “generally defies categorization,” a critical appraisal that could have been applied to Mr. Abercrombie’s entire stylistically-evolving career.
“John could go anywhere – rhythmically, melodically, harmonically – at the drop of a hat,” DeJohnette, who performed and recorded with Mr. Abercrombie for more than four decades, told NPR. “He had a very warm sound, and always played with sensitivity, dynamics. He could create atmosphere with his comping, and through his great use of space.”
Reviewing a 1986 nightclub performance, New York Times critic John S. Wilson wrote that “Mr. Abercrombie has a light, keyboard-like manner of developing performances, sometimes spreading from a sweeping line of single notes to a fullness that suggests an organ.”
Mr. Abercrombie found his way to Boston, and to Berklee , in 1962. While in high school, he began looking into music schools, among them The Juilliard School and Manhattan School of Music in New York City, but only Berklee offered jazz as a field of study. He was sold the moment the school’s catalog arrived in the mail, and upon moving to Boston he found a rich mix of talent levels. “The requirements were two years of musical experience,” he told Downbeat. “Everybody lied. I had classes with guys who couldn’t play at all, and real professional players.”
He spent several years in Boston, sticking around after he graduated from Berklee, though he later conceded that there was a second reason for overcoming his initial apprehension about his musical abilities. In 2005, he told Mark S. Tucker in an interview posted online that he stayed in school “partly because I wanted to learn music, and partly because I wanted to avoid the draft.”
His draft concerns were for naught, as he recalled in the Downbeat interview. His right leg was enough shorter than his left leg that he failed his induction physical. With that settled, larger venues soon beckoned. Mr. Abercrombie, who had performed after Berklee with jazz organist Johnny “Hammond” Smith and others, told Tucker that he and his musician friends “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.”
He left Boston with a refined set of playing chops – and a few good anecdotes. In an Arts Fuse interview with Ken Bader, Mr. Abercrombie recalled one evening when he and bassist Rick Laird had a gig at Paul’s Mall. Stepping outside during a break, they ran into famous jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk. “We look at him and offer him some of our herbal refreshment,” Mr. Abercrombie said. “Monk nods his appreciation, takes it from us, smokes the entire thing, and then thanks us and walks away. And Rick said to me, ‘Man, he just smoked all of our joint!’ I said, ‘Yeah, but it was Monk. We got a chance to hang out with Monk!’ ”
An only child, John Laird Abercrombie was born on Dec. 16, 1944, in a suburb just outside New York City. His parents, John and Elizabeth Abercrombie, were domestic workers and had emigrated from Scotland. The family moved to Greenwich, Conn., where Mr. Abercrombie grew up listening to Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore, until he encountered jazz guitarist Barney Kessel’s playing. Mr. Abercrombie’s other guitar influences included Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall’s work on saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ album “The Bridge.” He drew inspiration from rock legend Jimi Hendrix, too.
On his 2012 album “Within a Song,” Mr. Abercrombie paid tribute to a host of influences, including Hall and Rollins, pianist Bill Evans, trumpeter Miles Davis, and saxophonist Ornette Coleman. “This was the music that spoke to me,” Mr. Abercrombie wrote in the album’s liner notes. “When I heard it, it was like finding a new home.”
Mr. Abercrombie’s 1976 album “Gateway” was the debut of his trio with DeJohnette and Dave Holland on bass. He also had performed in the fusion band Dreams, a collaboration that included drummer Billy Cobham.
Over the years, Mr. Abercrombie recorded and performed in duets, trios, and quartets, many times with Marc Copland on keyboards. At various points in his career, Mr. Abercrombie played a guitar synthesizer, used pedals for effects, and also set aside his flat pick in favor of plucking strings with only his thumb.
Complete information about survivors and a memorial service was not available. The New York Times reported that Mr. Abercrombie lived in Putnam County, N.Y., with his wife of 31 years, the former Lisa Abrams.
In the Downbeat interview, Mr. Abercrombie said that he began to feel assured about his future as a musician and his playing at Berklee, where he studied with the legendary William Leavitt, who wrote the college’s now famous guitar method books. Mr. Abercrombie headlined a tribute concert at the Berklee Performance Center in 1991, a year after Leavitt died.
Mr. Abercrombie also was guided by Berklee teachers such as trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, who died in 2007. Landing a gig with a small band in Boston helped, too.
“It felt good to be a working musician, carrying my guitar down the street,” Mr. Abercrombie told Downbeat. “It was being on a team, where you don’t quite know what it is but that you’re part of it, you’re in this thing called music.”