Fusion music didn't exist when guitarist John Abercrombie plied his craft at a Boston supper club in the late 1960's.
Abercrombie was playing straight-ahead jazz when two brothers, working at the bigger club next door, stopped in on a break. Trumpeter Randy Brecker and his sax-playing brother, Michael, were passing through Boston, and they liked what they heard.
"When they got back to New York they called me up and asked me to join a group they were starting called Dreams, a Blood, Sweat & Tears type of band," Abercrombie says. "My favorite players were Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, and Jim Hall, and all of a sudden here I was operating wah-wah pedals at 10,000 decibels," he says.
Growing up in Greenwich, Abercrombie listened to the rock 'n' roll and pop music of the time: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Elvis.
"Then a friend played me some Barney Kessel," he says. "From that moment I knew I wanted to find out more about it."
He asked his guitar teacher about jazz and the teacher showed him some fancy chords. He decided to attend Berklee School of Music (not yet a college), which was just about the only place to study jazz guitar.
Steeped in jazz, Abercrombie toured and recorded with Johnny "Hammond" Smith in a straight-ahead organ trio. But his plans were upended by changes in the culture and the music.
"Everything broke loose," Abercrombie says. "Everybody was trying to play all kinds of music. When I moved to New York there was the jazz-rock scene, there were guys playing free jazz, there were a lot of jam sessions, and people were listening to ethnic music."
Jazz icon Miles Davis led the way with his late 1960's albums such as "In a Silent Way."
"We used to call it jazz-rock. Fusion was a term that came in later," Abercrombie says. "Part of it was just wanting to be more popular, reach more people, and make more money. And of course whatever Miles did, people followed. A lot of people were playing 'Bitches Brew' type stuff at jam sessions."
Dreams was one of the first jazz-rock groups, but when the members were not on stage, they were not wedded to fusion.
"When Michael and Randy and Billy [Cobham] and I hung out after rehearsals, we played jazz and we talked about jazz," Abercrombie says. "We all related to Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans. I always thought of jazz-rock as a fun music to play, but it didn't go very deep. At one point I realized I wanted to go back and play the music that I started out to play. So I made that move.
"I left Cobham's band and I was lucky to meet Manfred Eicher from ECM who had heard me play and he offered me a record date," Abercrombie says. Eicher is a legendary German record producer. "I wrote a few songs and I put something together with Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette. Shortly after that I formed a quartet."
Over the next four-and-a-half decades, Abercrombie has moved through several styles of music including free jazz. The one common denominator is his record label. Forty-three years after his first ECM recording, Abercrombie just finished his latest CD for the same label.
"I always felt that I could go where I wanted to go because of ECM," he says. "I left the fusion world behind, but I kept elements from that music: distortion and some effects on the guitar."
Now in his fifth decade in jazz, Abercrombie is very much aware of his place in jazz guitar history and has kept up with new developments.
"I'm right after that generation of Montgomery, Hall, and Grant Green," he says. "John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, and I changed the direction. Then Pat Metheny came along. When I first heard Pat play, I was blown away. He pointed to a more melodic way of playing."
"John Scofield brought this whole bluesy angular element," Abercrombie says. "Then Bill Frisell seemed to come out of nowhere with his own way of playing. Currently there are so many: Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ben Monder, Peter Bernstein..."
For the XRIJF, Abercrombie will go back to his roots in a way with an organ trio, featuring Gary Versace on B-3 and Adam Nussbaum on drums.
The John Abercrombie Organ Trio with Gary Versace and Adam Nussbaum will perform Sunday, June 26, at Montage Music Hall, 50 Chestnut Street. 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tickets are $30, or you can use your Club Pass. johnabercrombie.com.
City Newspaper's guide to Rochester's biggest music festival. The 2016 Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival runs Friday, June 24, through Saturday, July 2. For more reviews, blogs, photos, and the latest news, check our website every day of the festival.
The 2016 Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival runs Friday, June 24, through Saturday, July 2, and City Newspaper will be out every night of the festival, covering multiple shows.