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Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie

John Kelman By

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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:

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