An Alfred Hitchcock theme, a car crash and a snowstorm, and whatever happened to those quartet albums that have never made it on to CD? Jazz guitar legend John Abercrombie talks to marlbank 

John Abercrombie’s “Hitchcockian” album 39 Steps is one of the most significant jazz releases of the autumn by a master of jazz guitar clearly in his prime. Hitchcockian? Well, the title track and some of the other numbers on the album bear Alfred Hitchcock film titles as track names. There’s ‘Vertigo’, and ‘Spellbound’ nestled in there, and the movie connection also encompasses ‘Greenstreet’, named after Sydney Greenstreet the Kent-born screen actor who plays the character of Kasper Gutman, “the fat man”, in John Huston’s 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon

Different but just as lovely as last year’s standards outing Within a Song, which featured Joe Lovano, this time big Joe is absent and Philly-born pianist Marc Copland, who Abercrombie played with in drummer Chico Hamilton’s band, way back near the beginning of the now 68-year-old New York state-born guitarist’s career, joins. Copland, a pianist whose touch combines the winning acerbity of a Kenny Werner and the romanticism of a Fred Hersch on the record, was known as Marc Cohen and played the saxophone in those days. So now Copland finds himself joining Abercrombie, the former Frisellian, and Abercrombie’s long-term drummer Joey Baron, and bassist Drew Gress. Remember Gress and Abercrombie’s turn with Jack DeJohnette on John Surman’s formidable Brewster’s Rooster a few years back? 39 Steps is a milestone for Copland too as it’s his first appearance on an ECM record, and he has contributed a pair of tunes: the hypnotic ‘LST’, and ‘Spellbound’ to add to Abercrombie’s compositions. It’s clearly a meeting of minds as the album has a unified sound in that all the material matches. Baron and bassist Drew Gress chip in to the one quartet-written tune ‘Shadow of a Doubt’, and then there’s the Ernie Burnett/George A. Norton standard  [My] ‘Melancholy Baby’ known from memorable versions by both Bing Crosby and particularly Judy Garland in A Star Is Born. Even though it’s the oldest song by a long way dating back to before the First World War ‘Baby’ is probably the most modern thing on this record.

John Abercrombie speaking on the phone from his home in upstate New York might well have taken the maxim of Kasper Gutman’s to heart in a candid chat: “Here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding,” as the Fat Man in The Maltese Falcon disarmingly puts it. 39 Steps may well be an album people come to appreciate for its candour as they certainly will for its tunes, the innate improvisational mastery a given. 

Recorded in the spring, produced by Manfred Eicher in New York, and coming out so soon, that’s pretty unheard of in ECM’s usual patient way of working. It’s the complete opposite to what happened to Sleeper, released last year, which took a mere 33 years to see the light of day! Abercrombie recalls the making of 39 Steps made at Avatar in midtown Manhattan. “Manfred I think really liked the record and wanted to get it out before the tour in October. There were a couple of extra songs we didn’t get in. Two more tunes.” He then talks a bit about ‘Greenstreet’ the fourth tune in. “Marc thought he would play the melody with me but he did it as a piano trio and I then come in with a solo.” Abercrombie jests: “I’m my own sideman.” Copland is obviously important on 39 Steps and his comping is really quite delicious at times. “I knew Marc when he was Marc Cohen and a saxophone player,” says Abercrombie, “that’s two big changes!”. And then he riffs with affection a bit about Chico Hamilton who they both worked with. “Chico was great to work with. He was my second bandleader after Johnny Hammond Smith. Chico didn’t have a lot of music, but encouraged all of us to write.”

Abercrombie chooses to use the title '39 Steps' not just because of his love of Hitchcock films but also because the tune has 39 “measures”, or bars, and it’s something he tells me he’s done before. So, for instance, there are 16 bars in ‘Sweet Sixteen’, the opening track of the 1997-released ECM album Tactics with Dan Wall and Adam Nussbaum. “The measure is like a step,” Abercrombie says, “and I was hanging with a friend of mine, saxophone player Rob Scheps, and he mentioned Hitchcock. So he ran through a bunch of names like Vertigo, and Shadow of a Doubt. I’m a Humphrey Bogart fan and so from The Maltese Falcon there’s ‘Greenstreet’. Calling it ‘Sydney Greenstreet’ might have been a bit much, so it’s just ‘Greenstreet’! Vertigo is not my favourite Hitchcock film but the tune here is a little unsettled as there’s 6/4, 4/4, and 7/4, and yet it flows seamlessly.” As for ‘Melancholy Baby’ he explains, referring to the big “standards” mystery of the record ducking the question of which version of the tune he most admires. “It’s a suggestion of my wife. She was, you known kibitzing [chatting] with Manfred in the studio and she said ‘John likes to play “Melancholy Baby”.’ So he said ‘if you do the tune, do it abstract; play it loosely’. Well we can try! And we played it that way. It’s pretty far out. I never played it in tempo, never straight, but sort of free although I never deviate from the form.” But how, I asked Abercrombie, playing devil’s advocate a bit, would his old sparring partner Adam Nussbaum, these days an Impossible Gentleman, have approached the tune? Would it have been different to the way Joey plays it? “Adam would have played it straightahead. Joey does it very abstractly: with colours.” 

Abercrombie then talks quite openly and for the first time about a dramatic incident that took place before the one-off Gateway reunion gig in Chicago last December, part of his old friend Jack DeJohnette’s 70th birthday year of musical events he took part in along with the third member of the Gateway triumvirate, the great English bass player Dave Holland. “We drove to Jack’s house at Woodstock an hour-and-a-half south from here. It was great rehearsing; like putting on an old pair of shoes. I said I had to get going as I don’t like driving at night as I have cataracts; and we left at 5pm and it was still light. But someone drove into us head on, the airbags went on, and destroyed the car. Jack came to the hospital and arranged for a limousine service to get me and my wife home. I was OK, but then later [ahead of the gig] we had a blizzard, a north easter, and the electricity was wiped out and the town where we live was affected: so we went to a motel with our cat! But what were we going to do to get to Chicago for the gig? So we went to Albany and there was no snow there and so we flew from there to Chicago and then flew with Jack back after the gig.” 

Joey Baron above left Drew Gress, John Abercrombie, and Marc Copland

Only a matter of months later Abercrombie with his quartet was in New York recording 39 Steps. On the record he uses a custom Ric McCurdy solid-body electric guitar as one of his main instruments. “It’s a new McCurdy and I had it a month before the session. It’s like a small Les Paul-looking body with a wooden bridge and wooden tailpiece. There’s more depth in the sound. I call it a solid body arch top! The other guitar on the record is a Roger Sadowsky Telecaster, the one I use on Within a Song.”

Abercrombie says when he’s writing he always starts writing a waltz. “It’s like songs I learned when I was growing up from Bill Evans and Art Farmer. Groups like these always played waltzes, that triple metre. It’s so graceful and easy to play 3/4 into 4/4. I had a natural affinity and the flow was very free. So tunes start out as waltzes and I then change them into different metres.”

Something long-time Abercrombie fans will prick up their ears at the mention of I discovered as I asked the guitarist finally about his late 1970s-early 80s quartet records Arcade, Abercrombie Quartet, and M that haven’t, quite staggeringly, made it on to CD. Abercrombie says the sleeve notes have been written for a three-CD box set. “The biggest problem was finding photographs from the period. I only had a photo from the Abercrombie Quartet album, the only photo. I’m glad it’s coming out. I’ve often wondered why it had not.”
Interview: Stephen Graham
39 Steps was released by ECM records on Monday 23 September     
Photos of John Abercrombie, and of the Quartet above: John Rogers/ECM

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