John Abercrombie: Organ Trio Infatuation
The adventurous guitarist and composer John Abercrombie couldn’t get enough of the organ trio. He had a lifelong love affair with them, starting in Boston in 1967, and he had trio dates scheduled at the time of his death on August 22, 2017. This post surveys those Boston beginnings and his ongoing enthusiasm for the jazz organ.
Boston was where Abercrombie soaked up influences and interests that stayed with him for decades. He spent eight formative years there, from 1962 to 1970, and his attraction to organ trios took hold then. He took his first steps on the national stage in one in 1967.
Although he was a student at Berklee, Abercrombie was quite active on the local scene. He used the city as one big woodshed. He played big band music with Phil Wilson’s Dues Band, sambas with the Bossa Nova Quartet of saxophonist Allan Rowe, and lounge jazz with Al Natalie’s Tijuana Sounds group. His roommate, Jan Hammer, played keyboards in a strip club, and Abercrombie sat in with him there. He graduated from Berklee in 1967, but he acquired his practical education playing across the musical landscape of 1960s Boston.
John Abercrombie also heard and absorbed the music at Connolly’s and the Jazz Workshop. The Workshop was thriving in the mid 1960s, and Abercrombie was one of the many students who made the club a second home. Everybody worked that room. In one four-month stretch in 1964, Abercrombie heard Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, and Jim Hall—all profound influences on the young guitarist. He caught George Benson and then Pat Martino with Jack McDuff’s trio there. And there were local organists, good ones, like Hillary Rose and Phil Porter fronting trios as well.
At the Big M with Johnny “Hammond” Smith
In 1967, Crumbles, as he was nicknamed, got his first big break. That year the organist Johnny “Hammond” Smith came to town needing a guitar player. He auditioned and Smith hired him. The trio played a long residence at the Big M, a South End club of dubious reputation, and toured the northeast. Abercrombie stayed with Smith for over a year.
Abercrombie told Down Beat in 1976: “It was just organ, guitar and drums. Seven nights a week. Five sets a night. He knew a lot of tunes…And he could really swing. With the organ trio, the guitar player has to do a lot of 4/4 comping and the soloing can’t be too far out. It helps your sense of time. So, I was forced to learn a lot.”
Smith added saxophonist Houston Person to his group and recorded Nasty for Prestige (PR 7588) in 1968—Abercrombie’s recording debut. The drummer was Grady Tate. Here is “Four Bowls of Soul” (not Soup!) from Nasty, with Abercrombie in full soul-jazz mode.
After his time with Smith, three projects occupied Abercrombie’s last years in Boston. One was Gene DiStasio’s Brass Menagerie (heard here on YouTube). A second was the Jimmy Mosher-Paul Fontaine Big Band, the subject of a future post here. The third was Stark Reality, a jazz-rock-funk group organized by vibist Monty Stark. That band is a story unto itself. John’s guitar work is heavy on the fuzztone and wah-wah effects prevailing then. One wonders where Abercrombie might have gone if their album Stark Reality Discovers Hoagy Carmichael’s Music Shop had been a success.
In 1970, Stark Reality broke up, and the Brass Menagerie fell idle when DiStasio became ill. When Chico Hamilton called, Abercrombie moved to New York to join him, and things moved quickly after that. He gravitated toward the fusion camp, and made strong statements with the Brecker brothers and Billy Cobham.
In 1974, Abercrombie recorded his first album as a leader, Timeless (ECM 1047), with an organ trio. His bandmates were Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette. Here is “Red and Orange” from that album. It’s fusion, and some distance from Nasty, but it is still hard-driving trio music, with Abercrombie playing those long single-note lines that mark his work.
The Organ Trio Revisited
Over the next 18 years, Abercrombie moved away from fusion and developed his trademark lean and lyrical style. In 1992, he brought that approach to the organ trio, with Dan Wall on the Hammond and drummer Adam Nussbaum. Their concept was unlike the soul jazz of Johnny Smith or the fusion of Jan Hammer. It was a different kind of repertoire, blending standard tunes—Abercrombie loved reworking the standards—with free playing. This trio occupied much of Abercrombie’s time in the 1990s.
As if his own group wasn’t enough, Abercrombie found time for another organ trio. In the mid 1990s, Dr Lonnie Smith invited him to play on two albums, in a more “traditional” organ trio setting. The adaptable guitarist never missed a beat.
Here are two John Abercrombie efforts from that time. The first is “Scomotion” from his 1992 album While We’re Young (ECM 1489), and the second is the title track from Lonnie Smith’s CD Afro Blue, released on the Japanese Venus label (TKCV 35138) in 1993.
And “Afro Blue” with Dr Lonnie Smith…
Abercrombie nurtured several groups in his later decades, including the organ trio with Wall and then Gary Versace. His concept of the organ trio, which began back in Boston in the sixties, just kept evolving. He planned to work the summer 2017 dates with Nussbaum and Jared Gold, although his failing health forced their cancellation.
What explains Abercrombie’s enduring interest in the organ trio? Perhaps he answered that in a 1994 Down Beat story, after the release of While We’re Young. The critics who said he couldn’t swing puzzled him. “People today hear [my] ECM records, especially the earlier ones, where some of the music gets very spacy and non-harmonic and floaty, and they don’t realize I grew up playing “Green Dolphin Street” with an organ trio. I think that’s one of the reasons I keep coming back to the traditional format with the organ.”
More Abercrombie: Ted Panken posted an excellent 2012 interview with the guitarist on his website—recommended reading.