INTERVIEW: John Abercrombie in Kraków

John Abercrombie 4th July 2015 ICE Kraków Congress Centre
Photo credit Tomasz Osuchowski

JOHN ABERCROMBIE was one of the judges of the First International Jarek Śmietana Jazz Guitar Competition in Kraków, 1st - 4th July 2015. Mary James met him just before the final rounds of the competition. In this interview he remembered Jarek Śmietana and talked, as a first-time judge, about the high standards of the competitor and how he listens to their playing. His general advice to young guitarists: "Stop once in a while, stop playing...":

London Jazz News: This first International Jarek Śmietana Jazz Guitar Competition celebrates the work of Jarek Śmietana. You worked with him, notably on the album 'Speak Easy'. How did you first get to know him?

John Abercrombie: I can't remember when Jarek first got in touch. It was before email existed! He got in touch with me, told me who he was, told me he liked my music and wanted to work with me. So before we started recording, he organised a short of Poland. We didn't want to work too hard, we wanted to have fun so we both brought some compositions to the tour and even a Beatles tune. It was a nice fit, we played differently but we communicated well and he became a real good friend. I think 'Speak Easy' was recorded after that tour when we came back to New York. It went really well, it was easy to do. His music was quite easy to figure out and so is mine except for my odd phrase lengths.

LJN: What is Jarek's legacy?

JA: Jarek was the best jazz guitarist in Poland at the time, in a country of very good musicians like Tomasz Stańko, Michał Urbaniak. He brought so much music to people, he made people want to hear his music, he made fans, and that made them want to hear other jazz music. This makes the music environment healthier. So he was a wonderful ambassador for music in his own country and beyond.

LJN: What have been your impressions of this competition?

JA: It's an unusual situation. I have never been to a jazz competition before. It seems kind of unfair, it's hard to judge someone when they are under pressure. But these are not kids, they are professional musicians. I did not know what to expect. I thought I was going to hear medium level students. I was not expecting this level of proficiency which makes it even harder to judge. They all sound good. They all can play.

LJN: What criteria are you using to judge a performance then?

JA: It's just a feeling you get. You get a really strong feeling listening to somebody play, how they present the music, how they handle the instrument, their tone, their feeling, do they leave enough space or are they just crowding it all together? You hear one guy play and you say "Yes, this sounds good". And if you are pressed to say why it sounds good then you dig into your technical mind and try to figure out how to describe it.

It has to do with how they phrase, the sound they get from their instrument, their time feeling and what kind of compositions they are playing. It was nice to have the music in front of us, some are standards, some of Jarek's I already knew, some are own compositions. It was useful to see as well as hear the music and this gives another take, especially if you don't know the song. But if you know the song then it is easier to judge. You have a yardstick, you know what it is about. You might think "Gee, he's not making the changes correctly, or he is not improvising over the form, or he missed something". It's good to see how they begin and end, do they have a feeling for an arrangement or are they just playing it off the top of their head. I am listening to their intuition and seeing if they have put some thought into it, that they are not just winging it. Of course the whole situation has changed since I started.

LJN: How has it changed?

JA:  People are still playing the standard repertoire, Autumn Leaves, Stella By Starlight, so in that sense things haven't changed. But what's changed is the speed at which they learn, it's so rapid because of the technology. When I started there was no-one to help me, I had to listen to records and seek it out. There were only a few places to study so in 1962 I went to the Berklee School. Now every school has a jazz program, people learn quicker, there's more musicians but there's not more places to play, the venues have remained the same, the money has remained the same, or has even gotten less, and you have thousands of musicians who want to do the same thing. As far as recording goes, that industry has tanked, so now people do their own projects and they promote themselves.

LJN: If it's harder now, how do musicians mature?

JA: Good question! There is a theory prevalent among musicians of my age and even older (if there is such a thing) that the music of my generation came from the heart, and that the music of today comes more from the brain, technique, exercises and how complicated and clever you can be. There is a lot of truth in that. But when I listen to young musicians play, like here, they must be feeling something, you can't play devoid of feeling. There has to be something going on that makes you want to do this besides your brain.

I never had to consider this. I played with people who did not care if you went to school. I worked with older musicians and they would say "Hey, don't play any of that Berklee-school of music stuff on my bandstand". They didn't want to know how educated you were, they just wanted to know can you swing, do you know the song, can you play. So even though I did go to school the real school was in the moment, playing with people who were better than me. That situation doesn't exist for kids today. They may play with one of their compatriots who is better than them but they are not going to get a phone call from Miles Davis or Art Blakey. Those kind of people are all gone.

LJN: What one piece of advice would you give the young people here and all guitarists?

JA: I would tell all of them "Stop once in a while, stop playing, listen to what you are playing and don't just keep playing". The great Jim Hall told a student who was playing all the time, who was just noodling around "Don't just play something, stand there!" So my advice is "Stop, look and listen".

LINKS: Results of the  Śmietana Competition
Yaron Stavi's tribute to Jarek  Śmietana
CD Review - John Abercrombie Within a Song
CD Review: John Abercrombie Quartet - 39 Steps
Mary James' report on the Competition will follow

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