Photo by Getty Images / Michael Ochs

Nels Cline remembers the great guitarist and composer who had a profound and lasting impact on ’70s fusion and contemporary jazz improvisation.

Had I not already heard that the great guitarist and composer John Abercrombie was seriously ill, I would be walking around in a state of total emotional devastation today, the day following news of his death from heart failure on August 22, 2017. The extent to which his music and playing touched me is—like most aesthetic discussions/descriptions, I suppose—hard to put into words. John had recently released Up and Coming on ECM, the label on which his presence in the 1970s was nearly ubiquitous and had much to do with steering its aesthetic direction. To my ears, there was no clue in the music that this brilliant artist was in serious and sudden decline.

I first heard John Abercrombie in the early ’70s on a record by Barry Miles called Scatbird (released in 1972 on the Mainstream label), which may actually have been his first recording to officially emerge. I heard this thick Les Paul tone with a phase shifter playing lines that sounded like the guitarist had spent some serious time listening to John McLaughlin. I was interested but not galvanized, but the decade was young. Not long after this he ended up playing in the Billy Cobham Crosswinds band, and this was a time when Paganini-like virtuosity was the gestalt. John always sounded like he could do that, but I now realize that his gifts, as they emerged only a few years later, had more to do with a combination of his mastery of a very personal jazz syntax and an ability to morph into various odd and wonderfully musical personalities.

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