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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.

That there is no mention of Abercrombie's relationship with Towner, beyond a black and white image of the two guitarists included in passing, details Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie's primary flaw. Yes, Abercrombie visits the home where he grew up in Greenwhich, CT, and provides some narrative about coming to music, guitar and jazz, along with some discussion of the challenges of touring and how he came to write "Timeless." But for anyone familiar with Abercrombie's career, as lovely an experience as it is, Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie is, ultimately, a superficial look at a subject for whom a far greater story could have been told.

It's an absolute treat to see his as-yet-undocumented organ trio, featuring Gary Versace and drummer Adam Nussbaum, performing "Another Ralph's" at the 2014 Jazztage festival in Lichtensteig, Switzerland—in particular, its unexpectedly funky coda that, garnering a laugh from Abercrombie onstage, is a perfect example of Nussbaum's reference to how Abercrombie ..."plays with people whose instincts he trusts, and when you have that level of trust, that's when things can happen." It's also great to hear some perspectives and history about Abercrombie from Versace, Nussbaum and Lisa Abercrombie. And it's wonderful to hear Abercrombie explaining, to the Jazztage audience with his typically dry wit, how "Ralph's Piano Waltz," from Timeless (written on Towner's piano) came to be rewritten, with "Another Ralph's," first heard on 39 Steps, featuring the exact same melody but with a different set of harmonies/changes.

There are, indeed, some enlightening windows into Abercrombie's personality as he discusses, at various points in the film, early influences (in and out of jazz) and his eight years spent in Boston, first as a student at Berklee College of Music and then as a gigging musician, and where he saw jazz legends like Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, John Coltrane and Miles Davis perform. And there are some terrific anecdotes: in particular how, one night while he was standing out back of the connected venues where he played and saw others play (Paul's Mall and the Jazz Workshop), he ended up sharing (well, sort of) a joint and something more with Thelonious Monk, without any real words being exchanged.

But compared to Emma Franz's especially deep and profound look at a still-living guitar legend with her 2017 documentary Bill Frisell: A Portrait, Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie may capture some of who Abercrombie was but, especially for hardcore fans, leaves far too much out of its story. Bill Frisell: A Portrait really gets to the heart of who Frisell is, providing a far more detailed and in-depth look at his overall career, his musical philosophies and, with the inclusion of interview clips with so many of the musicians who have played with the guitarist, how he has come to be perceived. Open Land may be an undeniably engaging look at Abercrombie's life and work, but it also feels like a missed opportunity.

Abercrombie had a number of regular groups throughout his career, and the film would have felt more complete had Oehri taken the time to reach out to some of the musicians in those groups, like pianist Richie Beirach, bassists Marc Johnson and Drew Gress, drummers Peter Erskine, Peter Donald and Joey Baron, and violinist Feldman, in order to flesh out what is certainly a much bigger story and who would have been able to help dig into what, amongst other things, rendered Abercrombie such a unique improviser. Beirach, in particular, has already proven a fount of valuable insight in the liner notes to The First Quartet box. Of what made Abercrombie so distinctive, he said:

"Most guitarists have a personal vocabulary, which is fantastic, which is what you're supposed to have. But when they improvise they put in these particular riffs. Now, it's their language; it's them. But John [Abercrombie] comes from Jim Hall [another major influence overlooked in the film] and Bill [Evans]—real improvisers from scratch. Guys like Abercrombie are motif-driven; the motif is introduced in the first couple of bars of the solo—just like Beethoven or Bach."

Beirach also went into significant detail, in those same liners, on the subject of how Manfred Eicher encouraged Abercrombie and his projects/groups to evolve and become even more innovative:

"If you had a little trouble, Manfred would say, 'Why don't you play rubato?'—and a lot of the time he was correct. We would do a ballad in time, and it was good but it sounded a bit too much like 'Blue in Green.' Manfred was right; we'd do it rubato and it would be perfect in one take. Or we'd be doing something a little too fast, and he'd say, 'Do it slower,' or 'Do it in three.' He'd say, 'Why don't you play a long intro and do the tune with no piano solo,' because it was too long and tunes can't absorb three long solos unless they're in three separate formats. So, have an intro and two solos; or have George play a solo intro and have me play an outro."

It would also have been worthwhile for the director to have spoken with Towner and Copland—two musicians who, beyond playing with Abercrombie, were good friends and whose histories with the guitarist went as far back as the mid-'60s to early '70s. Add to that list saxophonists Charles Lloyd, Jan Garbarek and Joe Lovano, alongside trumpeter Enrico Rava, with whom Abercrombie played over the decades and would, no doubt, have had valuable contributions to the narrative. In addition to speaking with peers Metheny, Frisell and Scofield, other six-stringers like Vic Juris, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Adam Rogers would have shed a collective light on what made Abercrombie so special in a jazz continuum where there are guitarists a-plenty. And, of course, Manfred Eicher; having producing so many of the recordings on which Abercrombie appeared during his long tenure with the label, the ECM founder would certainly have had some important insights into Abercrombie's inextricably linked personal and musical DNA.

None of this is to suggest that Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie doesn't have its own value, its own charm. Footage of Abercrombie improvising, in a New York rehearsal space, with saxophonist Rob Scheps, bassist David Kingsnorth and, most notably, former Bill Evans drummer Eliot Zigmund, talking with luthier Ric McCurdy (who built the gorgeous green guitar that Abercrombie used the last time he played in Ottawa on a cold winter's night in 2014), teaching at Purchase College and spending time at home with his wife and Al, the cat, all contribute to the story of who Abercrombie was, and how he came to be a guitarist who remains terribly missed.

But as engaging, informative and entertaining a film as Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie is—in particular, for those who know little about this truly inimitable guitarist, composer and bandleader—it fails to provide much more than a first meeting. Perhaps that was its objective. Still, in a career already in its sixth decade when he was taken from us far too early, Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie feels too much a missed opportunity, with so many more stories to tell, so many more insights to be revealed and so many more mysteries to be uncovered.

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