John Abercrombie was an influential jazz guitarist and composer who came to prominence in the 1970s with a lyrical, improvisatory style that applied the swagger of rock-and-roll to the loose rhythms of jazz.
A leading guitarist of jazz fusion’s heyday in the 1970s, Abercrombie, who has died aged 72, sported a thick moustache and wavy hair, playing stringed instruments, including the acoustic mandolin, and the Roland guitar synthesizer, a device he once described as a “red electric safety pin.”
While his sound was sometimes wildly experimental, incorporating electric squawks and heavy reverb, Abercrombie’s four-decade career was largely defined by gentle, impressionistic guitar melodies. His music helped his long-time home, ECM Records, acquire a reputation as a haven for jazz musicians with a reflective, refined sound.
Abercrombie played with greats including saxophonists Jan Garbarek and Charles Lloyd, trumpeters Enrico Rava and Kenny Wheeler, and fellow guitarist Ralph Towner, whose classical style he accompanied on a pair of soaring guitar records, Sargasso Sea (1976) and Five Years Later (1981).
His subtle fretwork and understated stage presence as a bandleader led some critics and musicians to compare him to jazz guitarist Jim Hall, who died in 2013 and whom Abercrombie cited as a key influence, along with Wes Montgomery and pianist Bill Evans.
“He was really concerned with contributing to the overall sound of the group rather than calling attention to himself,” said Marc Copland, a friend and pianist who performed with Abercrombie at his final shows in late 2016. “He used to like to say on stage, ‘I like to pretend I’m a sideman in my own group.’ It would always get a chuckle, but he was kind of being serious.”
John Laird Abercrombie was born on 16 December 1944 in New York and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. His survivors include his wife of 31 years, the former Lisa Abram. When he was 14, his parents bought him an acoustic guitar…