John Abercrombie’s guitar tone has changed a lot over the years. I am particularly fond of his late 70s quartet with Richard Beirach, George Mraz, and Peter Donald. Back then his sound was extremely dark—nearly underwater in fact, with no treble to speak of. Lately it’s developed a lot more flesh and attack. On this new record, Open Land,
he gravitates toward a nasal tone more along the lines of John Scofield. "Spring Song," a haunting waltz, and "Gimme Five," based on a simple 5/4 vamp, feature a guitar sound so metallic and crisp that I searched in vain for an acoustic guitar credit on the disc sleeve.
Augmenting his working trio, which consists of himself, organist Dan Wall, and drummer Adam Nussbaum, Abercrombie recruits Kenny Wheeler on trumpet and fluegelhorn, Joe Lovano on tenor sax, and Mark Feldman on violin. The three supporting members don’t necessarily appear together on every track. Feldman’s violin, like most jazz violin, sounds antique and yet curiously progressive; its legato quality suits Abercrombie’s compositions well. There is no bassist, and Wall’s approach to organ bass is less aggressive than, say, Larry Goldings’s. As a result, the music has a rhythmically soft edge; even the fiery Nussbaum sounds generally calm and reflective.
On "Just in Tune" and "Little Booker," both lyrical swing numbers, Wheeler sounds especially relaxed and conversational, as though he were sitting back in a chair while taking his solos. Wall’s playing on these tunes is also packed with a casual sort of brilliance. The title track, "Open Land," takes a dramatic step toward abstraction. It begins with an angular melodic line played in unison by guitar, violin, and tenor. (Wheeler is absent on this cut.) Nussbaum brings it into tempo with the ride cymbal and the same melody is played as a fast eighth-note run. Strong solos follow by Abercrombie, Feldman, Wall, and Lovano.
Wall is again in fine form on the wistful ballad "Speak Easy." Same goes for Nussbaum and both horn players on "Remember When," a tune in six that makes judicious use of space between melodic phrases. All band members are given composer credit on "Free Piece Suit(e)," a collective improvisation which floats out of tempo until Feldman begins to stir it up, prompting Nussbaum to imply a slow, straight-eighth rock groove.
Touches of country and even reggae float by on "That’s for Sure," the final track. Abercrombie and Wall play around with the feel in simultaneous solos. The folky flavor of the song is heightened by the absence of horns, the presence of violin, and the particularly twangy sound of Abercrombie’s guitar. Perhaps the Americana-drenched influence of composers such as Marc Johnson, Bill Frisell, and John Scofield has rubbed off on Abercrombie. And perhaps this is the "Open Land" to which the album title refers.