Born 1944 in Port Chester, NY, John Abercrombie grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, and began playing the guitar at the age of fourteen. By the time he was out of high school, he was ready to veer away from imitative Chuck Berry licks in favor of learning to play the instrument more seriously. While enrolled at Boston's Berklee College of Music, Abercrombie worked with other students and played local clubs and bars. "it was pretty much your standard guitar-organ-drums set up." An offer to tour with organist Johnny Hammond led to his going on the road for weeks at a time, playing such spots as Count Basie's Lounge and the Club Baron in Harlem. During that same period, Abercrombie met the Brecker Brothers who were in the process of forming Dreams. They invited Abercrombie to play with them, and he was heard on Dreams' debut album on Columbia. In 1969, following graduation from Berklee, Abercrombie decided to head south in hopes of breaking into the New York music scene. In the next few years he developed into one of New York's most in-demand session musicians. He recorded with Gil Evans, Gato Barbieri, Barry Miles and many other artists, and also became a regular with Chico Hamilton's group. It was as the guitarist in Billy Cobham's band that Abercrombie first began attracting widespread attention among the general public. This ensemble was something of a Dreams reunion since it also featured the Brecker Brothers.
Abercrombie is heard on Cobham's Crosswinds, Total Eclipse and Shabazz albums. He found himself playing large concert halls and arenas, on bills with such top rock attractions as the Doobie Brothers. "One night we appeared at the Spectrum in Philadelphia and I thought, what am I doing here?" A short time later, at the Montreux Festival, Abercrombie ran into Manfred Eicher who invited him to record an album for ECM, The result was Timeless, on which he was joined by Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette. It received virtually unanimous critical acclaim. Gateway was released in November 1975; it marked the first collaborative effort of Abercrombie with DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland. A second Gateway recording was released in June 1978. In 1979, Abercrombie formed his own quartet, which included pianist Richie Beirach, bassist George Mraz and drummer Peter Donald. The group has made three recordings: Arcade, Abercrombie Quartet, and M.
Abercrombie has also recorded with many other ECM artists; the most significant collaborations must surely be with drummer Jack DeJohnette (Abercrombie appears on all of DeJohnotte's Directions and Now Directions albums) and with fellow guitarist Ralph Towner. Abercrombie and Towners Sargasso Sea was released in 1976 and Five Years Later in 1982. Abercrombie's touring trio with Mark Johnson and Peter Erskine is heard on Current Events, Getting There (with frequent guest Michael Brecker) and John Abercrombie/Marc Johnson/Peter Erskine. Critic, Chuck Berg has described the group as "solidified ... to the point where its sixth-sense interactions create a singleness of vision associated only with Olympian ensembles such as the trios of pianists Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson".
On Current Events, released in 1988, John used guitar synthesizer for the first time on record. John Abercrombie/Marc Johnson/Peter Erskine, released in 1989, was recorded in Boston on April 21, 1988 and documents this innovative trio, live. Repertoire from their four-year association is presented, and standards often linked with Bill Evans are given resplendent treatment. On the 1990 release Animato, John collaborates with composer/synthesist, Vince Mendoza and drummer John Christenesen, and presents eight original compositions.
John's affinity for jazz standards complements his role as an active clinician and teacher. While preparing for a Harvard lecture, where John surveyed the history of jazz guitar, he explained "When I'm playing tunes like Autumn Leaves or Stella By Starlight, as much as I've played those tunes over the years, I still enjoy playing them. And because I know them so well, I'm very free with them. I'm just as free with them as when I'm playing no chords at all. That, to me, is free jazz," John Abercrombie possesses a unique voice as a jazz guitarist combining evolving technologies with a tradition well represented by jazz standards.
Further insight from a 1988 Jazziz interview: Carrying on the tradition of jazz guitar from Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt to the present day is a very important aspect of my music I'd like people to perceive me as having a direct connection to the history of jazz guitar, while expanding some musical boundaries which may not always involve the guitar itself.