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Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie

John Kelman By

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John Abercrombie
Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie
Music Heritage Productions / ECM Records
2018

It's almost a year to the day since the world lost John Abercrombie and, for many of his fans, that loss remains something still deeply and palpably felt. A guitarist who managed to be instantly recognizable without relying on many of the signatures that help identify most guitarists—certain approaches to phrasing and melody and specific tonal approaches amongst them—Abercrombie may not have garnered the same degree of popular success as relative peers including Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny and John Scofield. Still, from both critical and musician camps his reputation was untouchable. Those other guitarists are, of course, similarly exceptional musicians who will go down as some of the most important of the last half century, but Abercrombie's place, despite not being as well-known or selling as many records (back in the days when records actually sold), is just as guaranteed.

The release of Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie comes just nineteen days before the one year anniversary of the guitarist's untimely passing on August 22, 2017 at age 72. Over the course of this clearly loving ninety-minute film, director, screenwriter, co-producer, co-Director of Photography and co-sound engineer Arno Oehri has managed to shape a surprising amount out of relatively little interview and performance footage. Perhaps too little? That's something that will vary, from person to person.

Imagery ranging from freeways leading into New York City to expansive landscapes and views of sea, land and cloud from an airplane that took Abercrombie from one side of the Atlantic to the other are connective threads between interviews with Abercrombie, his now-widow Lisa, organist Gary Versace and drummer Adam Nussbaum, and performance footage of the guitarist's trio with Versace and Nussbaum, along with an informal jam session with a group of other musicians.

These interludes are rendered more moving still through tasteful draws upon music from across Abercrombie's four-decade discography for ECM Records. Oehri includes music ranging from the guitarist's very first album as a leader for the label, Timeless (1975), through to his penultimate release, 2013's 39 Steps, but draws most heavily upon Abercrombie's early new millennium quartet with violinist Mark Feldman (2002's Cat 'n' Mouse through 2009's Wait Till You See Her). Perhaps it's the directors personal taste or, more likely, that this quartet best reflected the combination of melancholy and mystery that Abercrombie cites, in the film, as two of the touchstones that connect ECM's roster of musicians with its founder and primary producer, Manfred Eicher.

The film captures, through words and imagery, the life of a recording and touring musician, as Abercrombie provides some background on where he grew up, how he came to guitar, how he came to jazz, how he came to writing and how he evolved into the indescribably unique player that he quickly became soon after the release of Timeless. While it is likely his best-known and biggest selling album ("my greatest hit," Abercrombie describes with characteristically bone-dry, self-effacing humor), Timeless also suggests, at least in part, the musician and composer he would soon become, especially the 12-minute title track which closes both the album and this film, and whose genesis the guitarist describes in great detail, when faced with the challenge of writing music for his very first album as a leader.

But the genesis of Abercrombie the composer is one of many things that the film sadly glosses over too lightly. Abercrombie described, in a 2004 All About Jazz interview, that it was his friendship (musical and personal) with guitarist/pianist/label mate Ralph Towner—beginning in the mid-'60s and leading to two ECM recordings, 1976's Sargasso Sea and '82's Five Years Later—that had the most significant impact on Abercrombie's emergence as a writer. His nascent compositional voice was first rendered most clearly on the guitarist's extraordinary 1977 solo album Characters, but became even more firmly cemented with the formation of his first touring group, documented on three albums from 1979-'81 and collected together in ECM's 2015 Old and New Masters Edition box set, The First Quartet.

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