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Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie

John Kelman By

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"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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